In The Badger, the student newspaper at Sussex Univeristy (that, for my sins, I was once the editor of), I see that the board of the Sussex University Students’ Union Services, which manages all the student-run shops on campus, has decided to ban sales of the *Daily Mail. * The tabloid, it seems, has violated the Union’s policy “regarding xenophobic, homophobic, racist and fascistic action” and “seriously contravened a USSU policy condemning imperialist action in the Middle East.”
The Union also claims that the Mail had something to do with an incident a few weeks ago when a printer refused to print the Badger because one of its columns, was “too raunchy.” The *Mail *is the printer’s major client. This being the USSU, no supporting evidence was provided, of course.
It’s a bit unfair to pick on USSU. They are far from alone among British student unions in this attitude toward the freedom of expression. Student union executive boards love to ban the publication or distribution of ideas they disagree with. Last month, sales of the Sun were banned at Leeds University. A couple of weeks later, the SU at the University of East Anglia banned distribution of an issue of its own newspaper for running a “sexist” ad for a strip club. In 2001, the Union at** Sheffield University ** got much publicity after it banned Eminem records from the student radio station for being homophobic. It also forbade *Steel Press, *the student newspaper, from reviewing the rapper’s releases and barred students sporting Slim Shady T-shirts from its disco. Last year, Alice Tarleton, a former editor of *Steel Press, *summarised the pressures facing British student journalists. Censorious student unions are a common complaint.
Student Unions frequently do this because excluding things from the campus public sphere is one of the few things that they can actually leverage in pursuit of their overly-ambitious policy agendas. A favourite tactic is to extend consumer activism to the retail level by refusing to stock products produced by corporations with dubious political or ethical practices in union-run shops. In recent years, Bacardi **and **Nestlé have been favourite targets. (Strangely, tobacco products don’t seem to cause too much concern; probably too profitable for union shops.) As private entities with at least nominally democratic decision-making structures, this is clearly their prerogative.
Assaults on the free expression by student unions often appear to be little more than extensions of the logic of such retail boycotts. Publications are generally “banned” by refusing to sell them in union-owned campus stores. But if the human right to free expression is to have any meaning, it must imply a freedom to receive others’ expression, making the decision not to stock selected products with symbolic content morally questionable. This is, in fact, the same tactic used by some major retailers who refuse to sell gangsta rap or other genres they find morally objectionable. Lacking the commercial clout of a major retailer, this strategy has virtually no effectiveness in practice, leaving little more than a sad attempt to remain morally pure.
What’s worse, supporting such a stance rests on the dubious assumption that the authority determining the acceptability of the products to be sold will always remain sympathetic to your political values. And there is no guarantee of that. The best strategy, therefore, is to rule out all forms of censorship. Student Unions, like governments, should strive to create democratic fora for all their members, regardless of viewpoint. Once such fora are created, they cannot be selectively opened to some, but not other, members of the organisation. University students are adults and must be trusted to critically evaluate the messages they recieve.