The new anti-terror legislation which is stoking up some terror among many, ironically, is being more heavily scrutinised than ever before especially the amendment which includes the need for universities to ban extremist speakers. Many have spoken out about this including lecturers arguing that there needs to be a floor to debate ideas and that one of the best places for that is at universities. Universities provide a structure and framework where serious intellectual grounding exists and ideas can be effectively dismantled by students and teachers alike. Without the ability to debate many have argued you simply encourage extremism to thrive underground. These are all valid arguments which I completely agree with. Yet it seems to me painstakingly obvious that we at Lancaster University are already under the thumb of those who dislike free speech and debate. Our horror at the governments new measures should be horror at the union which pretends to represent us which in reality has little democratic mandate.
LUSU our union dislike speech and when they see or hear something they don’t like they ban it. You may be asking like what? Well let’s start with the sun. Not only did LUSU pass a motion saying they dislike the sun and page 3 they decided to not sell it at the union shop. That is the union’s decision it is their shop and they can sell what they wish. The union stance on this is very clear “It’s not in LUSU’s power to ban The Sun, and it remains on sale on campus. We’ve chosen not to sell it, which is our choice. The decision not to sell a publication which does not conform to the union’s values is in itself an aspect of the principle of freedom of expression.” This is fair enough however they haven’t stopped there. As their policy sates they have also run campaigns demanding that other stores on campus drop the newspaper. It isn’t enough for them not to sell it they have to attempt to stop others from selling it as well. Not only does it stop at page 3 but this brave liberation also extends to “lads mags”.
LUSU being the no nonsense inward looking organisation that it is also have an ‘offensive activities policy’. Yes it’s as exactly as Orwellian as it sounds. LUSU’s argument is that people must be free to exchange ideas free from fear and intimidation or intolerance and they achieve this by ironically banning certain views. They argue in their policy that offence is a ‘substantive harm’ and that “offence is defined as ‘anger, resentment, displeasure, or affront that can be reasonably asserted to have been caused by the insult or injury to the reputation of any race, religion, nationality, sexuality, gender identity, disability, socioeconomic background or age group.” You can already see the problems emerging when it comes to how people can express themselves and the precautions people must take on campus unless it contravenes this policy.
The policy dictates that “No part of the Union, or any standing or sub-committee, Club or Society for which it is responsible, shall arrange any activity that: a. Causes gross offence, as defined, to an individual or particular group; b. Incites intolerant behaviour that breaches the LUSU Equal Opportunities Policy or the Laws of the United Kingdom; 2. Any person suspecting that a planned activity yet to take place, be it: a. The provision of a platform for a speaker; b. The hosting of an event; c. The publication or dissemination of a document or an item of publicity material; d. Or any other activity Is likely to breach the restrictions set out in section 1 may submit a Prevention of Offensive Activities (POA) motion to the LUSU President in the first instance or the LUSU General Secretary, for that specific activity to be prohibited.”.
LUSU have claimed this is not a no platform policy. The argument is that the policy is designed to be decided on a case by case basis and that an appropriate level of support can be given to minority groups. However it is very clear that they define offence as harm it says it in the policy. This is remarkably similar to some aspects of the new anti-terror legislation one of which is to stop anti-democratic speech on campus. Yes there may be a LUSU committee which has the final say but why should they be involved at all?
Finally the democratic mandate for this organisation has to be questioned. Turnout for Full time officers e.g. the ones which are paid sits at 19.5% which is just pitiful considering the importance of those positions. Turnout in the college elections is higher at 30-40% however many have questioned how this voting works. Do people vote for the issues they consider to be important and need attention or do they vote for who they live with and their friends? LUSU in reality lacks a real democratic mandate. They will no doubt think different but the truth is the majority of students don’t vote and how many more haven’t paid attention to any of the issues. Yet LUSU as highlighted above has significant power including to restrict what we say and who we can invite for a talk. Maybe it’s time for a change and to actually empower students instead of silencing our voices.
By Sam Mace, Senior Writer for Daily Political View.