For anyone that knows me, the title would not seem at all out of place. As a Labour Party activist and huge Arsenal fan I am very used to shouting proudly about being a red. However, this time it is different. I am proud to be part of a ‘red’ institution in Leeds University Union, as deemed by Spiked’s so called ‘Free Speech Rankings’. They use a traffic light system to rank universities to determine how much ‘free speech’ there is on a particular campus after examining various policies of a student union as well as actions taken. Two of these specific cases that were particularly troublesome were the Union policies of ‘Zero Tolerance to Sexual Harassment’ and ‘LUU Should Continue to Exclude Hate Speakers and Fascists from our Union’ that were given amber and red lights respectively.
Spiked have not only just taken an issue with having a policy against sexual harassment but have taken particular issue with the use of certain terms within it such as ‘wolf-whistling’ and ‘derogatory sexual remarks’. These are not experiences that have personally happened to me but it is clear that the ‘lad culture’ that is so prevalent in the student community is one that must be rooted out, and derogatory sexist comments and wolf-whistling are not acceptable. This motion also includes clauses against various forms of physical sexual harassment from groping and lifting skirts to molestation and rape. I find it deeply troubling that a group such as Spiked are more concerned with ensuring that individuals (mainly men) have the ‘right’ to be sexist but say nothing for the ‘right’ of (mainly women) to be able to walk through their campus safely, without fear of intimidation or harassment. I am thankful that through various Labour Students and Young Labour events, I have heard ambassador talks during women’s caucus alerting me to the negative effects that these and many other forms of sexual harassment cause women in the student community and thus I am proud to be an ally to the feminist cause, playing my part by calling out this behaviour when possible.
The second one, excluding hate speakers and fascists, alludes to the current debate dividing the student population on No Platform. For me, this is pretty simple. True ‘No Platform’ policy, as devised from the 1970s onwards, protected the rights of students to be safe from violent attacks from far-right neo-Nazi groups such as the National Front and the BNP, by not giving them a platform to speak or assemble in Student Unions. This has continued to protect students of faith, LGBT students, women and more ever since, and has developed to meet new challenges such as fringe street groups like National Action and the EDL, and Islamist groups like Al-Muhajiroun. By having this policy, NUS and Student Unions have far from infringed on free speech but have granted the right to free speech to many who were not able to enjoy it due to the violent threat against them. This is why I have so strongly defended the need for No Platform policy at Leeds and have resubmitted the policy to ensure that it does not lapse. It is true to say that some groups have harmed the image of No Platform by using it to stifle debate rather than to protect students but this does not change the continuing need for the policy to be used with its original intention. Private membership groups like Student Unions have a responsibility to protect the rights of their students, and thus have the right to restrict groups who threaten or incite violence against others from having a platform within their institution.
So I am proud to say that I defend the rights of women to walk through their Student Union without fear of abuse or harassment. I am proud to defend the rights of Jewish, Muslim, LGBT, disabled and other minority groups to be able to be free from racists and fascists on campus. I am proud to be a ‘red’ if this is what it entails.
Image property of Horia Varlan