Written by Student Rights on 18 February 2015 at 11am

Campus Voice: Frankie said ‘Relax’ - Tell that to the New Puritans

Here at Student Rights we have often cited our belief that universities must have robust policies in place to deal with harassment or discrimination, and that a focus on equality and diversity is vital if institutions are to effectively challenge extremism. In this article, KCL lecturer Dr Niall McCrae gives his take on the issue - suggesting that the focus on these policies may have tipped over into censorship. All views are his own, and do not necessarily represent those of Student Rights...

Finger on the ‘pause’ button, I sat poised to record an exciting new song on my allegedly hi-fi Amstrad machine. I waited in vain.

While ‘Relax’ by Frankie Goes to Hollywood was repeatedly played at Tokyo Joe’s, my local trendy bar, the BBC had banished it from the airwaves for its explicit sexual content.

What struck me was the futility of censorship: a track by an unknown band that might otherwise have disappeared into the ether of early '80s electronic pop suddenly became irresistible to the youthful masses.

It shot to number one, and soon ‘Frankie says Relax’ t-shirts were paraded on every high street.  

In my naïve view, the response to the Frankie ban demonstrated the irreversible progress of liberalisation. How things have changed since then.

The fatwa against Salman Rushdie’s ‘Satanic Verses’ raised eyebrows in British society, but not until recently have we realised that censorship, rather than continuing its retreat, has reared its ugly head.

Perhaps more worryingly, whereas students in 1984 rejected Orwellian dystopia to buy that naughty record, today it is university and student bodies that are leading the fight against freedom.

At the University of Plymouth last year, the hit song ‘Blurred Lines’ by Robin Thicke was banned by the Students’ Union for offending and endangering women.

The response by the university to its poor rating in a recent survey by Spiked classifying freedom of speech on campus tells us everything we need to know about the weakening hold on Enlightenment values in our highest institutions of learning.

Following the release of the survey, a university spokesman asserted:

“...we are among the majority that are concerned to see that robust policies tackling important subjects such as harassment, discrimination and bullying have been branded as barriers to free speech”.

I fear that the Spiked survey could have the unintended effect of drawing attention to the minority of ‘green’-rated universities, who may think that they are doing something wrong. There is little sign of universities celebrating a good score. 

The spokesman explained that the university has:

…released a statement of intent demonstrating our commitment to promoting equality and diversity, and social inclusion, and creating a culture that celebrates and promotes these values.

We will continue our work to create an environment where everyone can live, work and study in safety and security”.

Note the control of language to control debate. Everyone wants students to feel safe from the sticks and stones that break bones, but it is pushing the definition of safety to treat any politically incorrect opinion as harmful.

The student’s union president Sarah Bowman said:

…we work to create a safe and supportive environment for our students and ensure that we promote equality, diversity and social inclusion on our campus, which is why we believe it’s important to enable students to shape our policies”.

Of course she is right that students’ affairs should be decided democratically. But in the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, let us be clear that democracy and free speech are not two sides of the same coin, but are mutually dependent.

It would be absurd for a student body to claim it is democratic when it doesn’t allow people to express their opinions, or to buy Britain’s most popular newspaper in the campus shop.

The commitment of students’ unions to democracy is dubious when debates that could inform students’ opinion are banned, and prohibitive decisions are made on the basis of a single complaint and voting by a small number of zealots.

More importantly, let us focus on the prevailing ultra-imperatives of equality and diversity, trotted out with monotonous regularity by the commissars of moral rectitude.

Is it beyond the comprehension of the university spokesman or student union president to see that free speech is fundamental to the principles of both of these concepts?

For genuine equality, all should have their say, and nobody should be able to suppress another’s person’s right to legitimate expression.

Diversity, which we are often told to celebrate, cannot flourish if the pluralism of views is selectively curtailed.

It is not easy being a censor. Student representatives who take on the responsibility of policing the beliefs and utterances of several thousand students must lead a stressful life in their pursuit of ideological purity.

Like Frankie said, the puritans controlling life on campus should ‘Relax’.