ACROSS Britain, in a great many of our universities, a battle is taking place over free speech. Every month brings some new revelation of a university or students union where something has been censored or someone has been 'no platformed' - the term for banning speakers. According to the Free Speech University Rankings just published “things are not looking good” on campus. Some “90% of universities,” the report says, “censor speech, up from 80 per cent in 2015.” Among those given a red light for censoring were Edinburgh, Stirling and Dundee University.

There has been no shortage of bannings at Edinburgh. The students union in 2013 became the first in the UK to ban Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines from being played in its venues. That restriction was part of a wider Edinburgh University Students Association (EUSA) policy named End Rape Culture and Lad Banter On Campus. EUSA has also banned fraternities, following the leaking last year of minutes from a Delta Kappa Epsilon frat meeting, where members joked about going on a “rape trip”. And it’s not only sexism that is being clamped down on. Students have been outlawed from wearing “offensive” Halloween fancy dress outfits: including sombreros, black face, gangsters and “camp men”. Meanwhile, the students union, like many others across the country, also has a safe space policy, prohibiting the use of discriminatory language or actions in its venues.

Not everyone is happy about this. At Edinburgh University, a backlash is being led by two philosophy undergraduates, Charlie Peters and Blair Spowart, who believe the situation is so troubling that they have launched a series of campaigns to promote free speech. Among them, a petition by Peters urging the EUSA to reinstate and defend free speech. Peters is also planning a debate on “the issue of censorship at university, and the lad culture situation” to which he has invited controversial speaker Milo Yiannopolous, a figure who has been no-platformed already by Manchester University for questioning the existence of rape culture. Yiannopoulous, for instance, once staged a two-person protest where he held a placard saying, “Rape culture and Harry Potter: both fantasy.”

Peters himself confesses to being a “bit of a lad culture culprit”, saying: “I go to football and shout a lot, and drink a lot and behave ludicrously and loudly. It’s got to a point where being loud and abrasive is considered bad. And that’s sanitising the university experience. People are so sensitive to the idea of that loud, brash masculine behaviour that they want to outlaw it."

The sexism that comes with lad culture is not the only kind of speech outlawed. Racist, transphobic or homophobic comments are also banned. Because of the safe space policy, Peters notes, he can’t form a proper student's society. “To be a society,” notes Peters, “you have to adopt the safe space policy. I can’t form a society to invite the kind of people I would like to hear from.”

Among the people he would like to hear from are Tommy Robinson, ex-leader of the EDL, who last year had his invitation to speak at Edinburgh University withdrawn, and Germaine Greer, who was no-platformed last year when students petitioned against her speaking at Cardiff University because of her allegedly transphobic views. “I would like to hear from them and ridicule them” he says. “Tommy Robinson would be a brilliant person to criticise and show that he is wrong. We don’t have the opportunity to hear his argument and then show why he is bad. I would also like to criticise Germaine Greer. Some of her views, particularly her earlier views, she writes something like all men hate women, are not something I particularly agree with.”

Many students, however, are positive about the bans and safe spaces. Indeed, they do not see them as restricting free speech. Some, like Urte Macikene, EUSA Vice President (Services) believe the opposite. “The policies that we have are in place,” she says, “precisely to broaden free speech. They are there to enable disadvantaged groups to participate equally in debate and discussion in our venues. When we talk about free speech in society, the privilege to speak is not doled out equally to everyone. Some groups get their views heard far more than others. So we’re just trying to make sure everyone has an equal platform.”

Much that has been banned would be deemed by many as offensive. It was students 'blacking up' for Halloween that triggered the fancy dress policy. Tommy Robinson’s invitation was withdrawn, by the university, after he made a speech in Holland where he said he was “proud of forming the resistance in my home country to the Islamisation of my town and my country.” And the banning of fraternities was triggered by the leaking of a particularly shocking set of minutes from the Delta Kappa Epsilon frat society. When a suggestion of a paintballing session with the Feminist Society to ease the tensions between the two organisations was vetoed, the proposer reportedly said, “How are we going to rape them?”

Spowart and Peters acknowledge that they too find some of the speech they are trying to defend offensive. Both however remain firm defenders of the rights of others to say offensive things. And it’s not only the EUSA policies they complain of, but the wider atmosphere. “I think,” says Blair Spowart, “there is a more general intolerance. You could take away all the policies tonight and you would still be left with a “you can’t say that” culture.”

This is an issue that strongly divides people, both on and off campus. Often it seems there is a generational divide, with the a great many young students favouring the strategies of safe-spaces, while older commentators look on and frown. Urte Macikene thinks there is a reason for this: “I think we’re seeing the power dynamics in society shifting away from groups which have been historically really privileged in society and groups that have been historically underprivileged asserting their identity and asserting their power. And I think that can feel sometimes threatening for certain groups.”