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Portsmouth University Criticised in Free Speech Survey

The University of Portsmouth and the Portsmouth Students’ Union have been given a red freedom of speech rating in a survey done by online publication Spiked Online.

The institutions were one of five universities and unions which were given red in the survey, the others being: Essex, Northampton, Bath Spa and the University of the West of England. The policies criticised by the research were: IT Acceptable Use Policy, Gender Reassignment and Trans Equality Policy, Anti-Bullying and Harassment Policy.

The website defines a red rating as: “A students’ union, university or institution 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.”

The policies of the Students’ Union that were criticised were the No Platform policy, which was re-passed last month following two years, and the Zero Tolerance policy. The survey also criticised the decision to ban payday loans adverts from Students’ Union premises which was taken in May 2013.

The survey looked at 115 institutions, selected based on the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (HEFCE) list of universities that it funds. Various specialist universities were excluded, such as those focused on medical, arts or agriculture although the publication states that they would be happy to work with them in future.

On Spiked Online’s profile of Portsmouth Students’ Union and the University the publication states: “The University of Portsmouth and the University of Portsmouth Students’ Union collectively create an environment that is hostile to free speech. The university, which has received a red ranking, bans ‘transphobic propaganda’ and places further restrictions on ‘offensive’ speech or behaviour. The Students’ Union, which has also received a red ranking, has a No Platform policy which bans far-right and fascist speakers from campus.”

The publication state that they have not negatively assessed any policy or action that is aimed at tackling any unlawful speech. However, there is a contradiction as the criticised policies; the Anti-Bullying and Harassment policy as well as the No Platform policy aim to tackle unlawful harassment deemed illegal under the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act.

This states: “A person must not pursue a course of conduct: (a)which amounts to harassment of another, and (b)which he knows or ought to know amounts to harassment of the other.” Furthermore the Gender Reassignment and Trans Equality Policy brings the Students’ Union further into line with the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act by preventing transphobic abuse, harassment or bullying.

Grant Clarke, President of the Students’ Union, said in response to the article: “Here at the University of Portsmouth Students’ Union, our students debate and discuss a whole range of different issues. Our students voted to have a No Platform policy to fascist attitudes on campus, and a Zero Tolerance policy to sexual harassment, homophobia and racism, because our students want to study in a safe and accepting campus for all of our students, staff and visitors.

“We openly talk and discuss these issues, but we don’t accept these behaviours on our campus. If Spiked Magazine wants to accuse us of being awful people for not wanting sexism, homophobia and racism at our University, then I’m more than happy to oblige.”

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