Sean Stevens is Heterodox Academy’s Research Director. He has a PhD in social psychology from Rutgers University.
Heterodox Academy has primarily focused on the academy’s problem with viewpoint diversity within the United States. Yet, viewpoint diversity is increasingly an issue in other Western countries- most prominently in the United Kingdom. For the past two years, Spiked has ranked British universities with a traffic-light system for free speech, similar to the systems employed by FIRE and ISI. This blog post briefly summarizes the criteria employed by Spiked and presents some examples university policies and actions that can result in lower (RED) or higher (GREEN) rankings for free speech.
Spiked rates each individual university and students’ union on its hostility to free speech. The overall rating for each institution is produced by averaging these two ratings. Only policies and actions related to students’ free speech and conduct are assessed, with each policy and action being given its own rating. Overall, a university can receive one of three ratings:
- RED: A students’ union, university or institution [heretofore as “areas”] that is hostile to free speech and free expression. It mandates explicit restrictions on speech, including, but not limited to, bans on specific ideologies, political affiliations, beliefs, books, speakers or words.
- YELLOW: Areas that chill free speech and free expression by issuing guidance with regard to appropriate speech and conduct. Policies in this category often concern themselves with the tone, rather than the content, of speech and ideas. This includes, but is not limited to, restrictions on ‘offensive’, ‘controversial’ or ‘provocative’ speech and expression. Policies which vet speakers, literature or events may also fall within this category.
- GREEN: Areas that, as far as Spiked are aware, places no restrictions on free speech and expression – other than where such speech or expression is unlawful.
- University: A university’s administration – separate from the academic staff and the students’ union.
- Students’ Union: the students’ union administration.
- Institution: the university and students’ union when taken as a whole.
- Policy: a document held by a university or a students’ union that governs students’ conduct and speech, or mandates certain procedures with regard to academic or political activity.
- Action: an executive decision taken by either a university or a students’ union that abridges free speech. This includes, but is not limited to, bans on specific speakers, books, newspapers, songs and words. These are binding restrictions, but are too specific to be considered a policy.
University policies examined include, but are not limited to, those relevant to free speech and external speakers, bullying and harassment, and equal opportunity.
Students’ union policies examined include, but are not limited to, no platform policies and safe space policies. The student codes of conduct are also examined.
Finally, actions examined include, but are not limited to bans on controversial speakers and newspapers, as well as expulsion of students on the grounds of their controversial views or statements.
Red Light Actions
Examples of red light actions by the university include the cancellation of an abortion debate by Christ Church College at the University of Oxford, the University of Leeds’ protocol on freedom of expression, and Newcastle University’s ban on initiation ceremonies.
Examples of red light actions by students’ union include Coventry University’s restrictions on offensive or disrespectful “names” or slogans on clothing during university tours and Edinburgh University’s policy on costumes that prohibits dressing in select costumes including ‘Mexicans’, ‘gangsters’ ‘Caitlyn Jenner’, ‘mental patient’, ‘Chris Brown’
Yellow Light Actions
Examples of yellow light actions by the university include the University of York’s harassment policy which includes “offensive verbal or practical jokes” and the University of Ulster’s policy governing all on-campus political activities, which specifies the format and location of all activities must be chosen in a way that will avoid causing offence to other students, staff or visitors to the university. This policy is shared by the university’s students’ union.
Examples of yellow light actions by students’ union include the University of Nottingham’s safe space policy and the University of Cambridge’s students’ union condemnation of inviting Germaine Greer to speak at the Cambridge Union.
Green Light Actions
Spiked provides no examples of green light actions, as a green light rating reflects a “hands off” approach to free speech.
Problems of viewpoint diversity and toleration of different views within a democratic society are not limited to college campuses in the United States. They are quickly becoming international problems. To solve these problems, a better understanding of each other is required so that we can work together to find a solution.