Is Campus Censorship a Form of Communication?


Views not necessarily those of the Free Speech and Secular Society 

Over the last few years, campus censorship has become a hot topic in university and free-speech politics, reaching almost epidemic proportions. In 2015/16, several high-profile speakers were banned by UK-based student unions, on the grounds that they were offensive or inflammatory.

In cases where a ban could not be affected, a boycott, cancellation or disruption of the event was organised.

These bans and boycotts seem to be all about censorship. But could there be something else involved? Could campus censorship actually be a form of communication?

There are many different ways to communicate. Most of us know the old adage ‘actions speak louder than words.’ Communication can be achieved through action, demonstration and protest, and targeted inaction, such as withdrawal, use of silence, Lysistratic non-action, refusals.

Protest can be a form of communication, a way of highlighting an issue with the aim to achieve a goal. An example of this occurred when provocateur Katie Hopkins spoke at Brunel University.  Students stood up en masse, in silence, and turned their backs on her. In doing this, they made a clear statement about how they perceived Hopkins’ views.

Students don’t necessarily see bans as censorship.  Rather, they are framed as a statement that the views of the speaker are rejected and unwelcome, akin to not inviting someone to a party.  The banned/silenced party is only denied a platform at the particular Higher Education establishment, rather than universally. 

To openly reject a certain view or person, is also to make a communication about ones own views. This may be virtue-signalling, but it is also a strong public claim about acceptable identity and who is ‘deserving’ of equal rights.  Banning a speaker functions as statement and a communication in protest of their views. This type of action could even function as an outright public and social rejection of the person and viewpoint, a ‘shaming’ of sorts.

There are limits to the efficacy of this kind of protest. News of campus bans is often reported in the media and discussed on social media. Indeed, a ban may actually result in the so-called Streisand Effect, wherein more attention and support is generated for the banned person or group. This is the exact opposite of the intended result.  

Students may fear that to allow a controversial speaker on campus is to implicitly endorse them, which will cause vulnerable groups to feel unsafe. However, controversial speakers are free to speak elsewhere, and they do. The result of this is that viewpoints are repeated without challenge amongst groups of like-minded people. Ideas may be inflated rather than critically discussed. Flawed arguments may not be superseded by better ones.  

It could be that in the long-term, campus censorship will not protect the vulnerable or undermine damaging viewpoints. Universities may remain ‘safe spaces’ but outside academia the offending views can flourish unchallenged. Rejection and silencing can convey a powerful message, but passive action alone is perhaps not the most effective weapon when it comes to defeating ideas. It  may be necessary to actively fight and speak out to ensure the ideas that shape our culture and government are robust, fair and tested.