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New free speech rankings: possibly too subtle and nuanced?

Paul Greatrix takes a subtle and nuanced (not to say satirical) look at the latest "free speech" rankings published by Living Marxism, erm, Spiked Online.
This article is more than 5 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

There has been unbelievable excitement at campuses across the country as the much-awaited new Freedom of Speech rankings are released. This really is thigh-slappingly splendid news for those of us in higher education who believe in free speech.

Spiked always deliver a landmark event and their “project” is sure to grab the headlines as examples of shocking censorship are paraded in the quality press. And there’s never been more interest in free speech from all parts of the political spectrum – this ranking is just the ticket for tickling the fancy of everyone from Sir Herbert Gussett to Dave Spart.

All new ranking excitement

I’ve stressed here before just how brilliant this particular ranking is and with its unique and highly accurate traffic light system it really is extraordinarily difficult to argue with. Here’s the ranking then and it really is amazing that they have distilled such complexity and variety of so many features into such a pure three point rating system of such clarity. But the full sophistication of the model is revealed by just a snapshot of its astonishingly balanced methodology:

Red or Amber actions are the equivalent of one third of the weight of a Red or Amber policy. For instance, if an otherwise Amber university has three Red actions to its name, this would raise its ranking to an overall Red. What’s more, if an otherwise Green university has two Red actions to its name, this will raise the university to an Amber ranking. Red actions refer to explicit bans, whereas Amber actions refer to decisions that chill free speech: for example, a university or students’ union calling on the other to ban something, or mandating trigger warnings on a particular text.

There’s much more on the website but, take it from me, you really don’t need to trouble yourself with the finer methodological details here, these guys are pros, they’ve been at it for years.

In commenting on last year’s equally brilliant league table I expressed some concern that there was a danger of grade inflation getting out of control and suggested it had to be tackled or there was a real danger that the credibility, veracity and precision of this ranking would be compromised.

The data this year suggests these warnings were heeded:


Yes, while there are only seven Green institutions, 6% of the total as last year, meaning the total proportion of vicious, repressive universities (including some only slightly less evil ones) remains at a staggering 94%, the actual proportion of sizzling Red repressors is actually DOWN from 63.5% to 55%. It just goes to show that grade inflation can be tackled and the impact these rankings are having in the sector.

Let’s also look at a couple of the shocking bans which the rankings have uncovered:

Frightening isn’t it? There is also a concern which I am sure everyone in the sector will share that newspapers, websites and the House of Commons Committee looking at free speech will also miss the serious in-depth analysis and painstaking number crunching and simply take at face value the utterly sound proposition that 94% of universities are stifling free speech one way or another.

Nevertheless, this is a ranking which deserves infinite respect and they have got the interests of the sect [surely “sector”? – Ed] at heart. If there were Oscars for rankings this one would be right up there for best league table of the year.

It’s already being seen by some of the sector’s biggest rankers as on a methodological par with the remarkable ‘Spoons league table and as complex and multi-layered as that thing the Tab did about which crisp is your university. This is confirmed by their assessment of UWE which, only the other day, outrageously upheld the right to freedom of speech of Jacob Rees-Mogg. It doesn’t get redder than that:

So, overall, the Free Speech ranking is, once again, a triumph. Congratulations to everyone involved (I won’t name them). However, I think it only appropriate to offer a few tips for next year’s table. Here are my helpful suggestions then:

  1. Despite the subtlety and nuance of the 2018 table, it might be sensible to ratchet up the understated language just a notch. For example this really isn’t going to grab anyone’s attention:

2. Although the number of Red ratings has dropped, grade inflation remains a real risk. Why not go for some kind of Grade Point Average? Or, better, still, introduce a Red Star rating for the real repressors.

3. Given the numbers of bans of various things are speculative at best it would perhaps be better to increase them to utterly unbelievable levels in order to maximise the impact.

4. Why are all those medical, creative and agricultural institutions left out? It really is unfair on their students and staff and confirms the already significant free speech restriction privileges of those less arty, farmy or medical institutions. Sculptures, cows and patients need to be recognised too.

5. And then there are the Alternative Providers too. We need a Free Speech Level Playing Field.

There we have it then, an amazing piece of Free Speech ranking genius. But let’s have a little less of the subtlety and sophistication next time eh?

8 responses to “New free speech rankings: possibly too subtle and nuanced?

  1. Comedy may be your metier, but I think it may be more difficult for you to justify the following recent cases:

    -a UKIP MEP being told to submit his speech for vetting under safe space policy(he refused and hence was de facto banned)
    -‘safe space marshals’ policing speech in situ at events at a London University
    -one feminist having her invite withdrawn to speak to students at he own institution because a small number of students complained that she breeched safe space policy following comments she made on radio 4 critical of trans activists

    And yes, many people – no doubt less sophisticated that you – do see taking certain papers out of the shop, certain songs off the playlist or proscribing certain fancy dress items as rather patronising and censorious.

  2. Thanks for this- I suppose it’d be too much time and trouble to do something similar for everything Spiked posts?

  3. “-a UKIP MEP being told to submit his speech for vetting under safe space policy(he refused and hence was de facto banned)
    -‘safe space marshals’ policing speech in situ at events at a London University”

    These are measures that are put in place to literally ENSURE free speech that doesn’t break the law. If the speakers refused to speak on the basis they didn’t want to reveal if their speech was going to break the law then they censored themselves.

  4. Chris, we disagree. I do not think either measure is motivated by a legal imperative (if they were, would that make it acceptable?) In both cases it is motivated the ‘safe space’ idea, explicitly set out in policy. I don’t know if you have ever been asked to submit a speech for vetting as condition of speaking, or to have paid safe spacers hanging round your lectures? If that is considered normal or simply no issue then, yes, I would say we have a problem with free speech.

  5. Availability bias is a wonderful thing. Let me just pick some isolated examples myself to fit whatever trend I’ve already decided there is.

  6. For “vetting”? By whom? By a panel specially chosen to reflect the population in terms of age, sex, race, sexual orientation and every other parameter on which human beings differ or a panel of students who are overwhelmingly likely to have an innate bias against UKIP and who would most likely set the goalposts as narrowly as possible? Let me guess.

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