Freedom of speech is always a hot topic. There is an incredibly fine balance between protecting free expression and preventing offence or harm through censorship. It is almost impossible to create universal rules as to what should be deemed offensive and what should not. Therefore, any decision taken to censor material on the grounds of its apparently damaging nature is often met with marked opposition.
In the past week, both the Manchester Debating Union and The Mancunion have been censored. Both were asked to remove a photo from physical material deemed offensive by the union executive. The photo in question was an image of porn star Sasha Grey, in underwear, in the kind of image oft featured on the cover of ‘lads mags’. The physical material on which the image was intended to appear were promotional flyers for a debate concerning the role of women in porn and the printed edition of The Mancunion. The exec explained their decision, suggesting that the image objectified women, citing a vaguely worded clause in the union constitution. However, while the union executive is designed to protect the welfare of students and was acting within this remit, they seem to have fallen into two common pitfalls in this case of censorship: context and scope.
The context in which potentially offensive material is published is clearly the dividing line between an oppressive society and an anarchic one. If context is not taken into account when censorship occurs then any discussion of issues within society will be severely limited. How can we discuss racism if racist material is always deemed offensive and we are therefore banned from even providing it as evidence of the continuation of racism? There have in fact been cases of overzealous censorship that that discussion has been damage by.
With regards to the image of Sasha, the context is clear; an intellectual debate is clearly not the kind of arena that is designed to reinforce the status quo. In fact by using the image of Sasha, MDU illustrated the issue at the centre of their debate clearly. By the fact that they were debating it, they illustrated that the issue of the plight of women in porn is important and does need to be debated. By censoring the image the union deemed both Manchester students too under developed intellectually to grasp the need for free discussion of a vital issue it was promoting and the fair use of a shocking image to draw attention to such a debate. While the exec may still be able to accuse the MDU of objectifying Ms Grey by using her semi nude image to promote their own ends, the censorship of The Mancunion is both illogical and unnecessary. The image would have been used to directly illustrate a developing issue. The role of news agencies is to reflect what is happening in the world around them. Blanket censorship of controversial images only undermines this process.
Furthermore, the scope of the images at hand was not taken into consideration. The arena in which the image was to be circulated for either debate promotion or news purposes was solely the university itself. The vast majority of those consuming the image through either of these two media would have been students or other members of the university community. A university by definition is a community of learned, learning and educating individuals. It is not unreasonable for MDU or The Mancunion to assume that this group can ascertain the reasonable justification for the use of the image for themselves and to not draw offence from this due to its being used in an intellectual context to illustrate the issue at hand. As such, a blanket censorship is almost patronising on the part of the executive.
However, the most evident problem with this particular instance of censorship is, again, one common to many instances of a similar kind. There is an evident tone of nimbyism in the ban. Pornography exists and if, as many studies have found, 100% of men and around 70% of women view it then the vast majority of the university community must do. To censor an image associated with porn in light of this is near pointless. One member of the exec explained that while Sasha may have chosen to participate in the image, the nature of the image in itself is objectifying her. The use of the image to promote an event only furthers this objectification.
The issue here is that, although the use of the image may have been planned to incite shock, discussion and attention for the debate, none of those things is necessarily bad. While it is good to see the question of ‘Does Porn Empower Women?’ visible around the union at all, it would inevitably have got more attention with the image at hand, particularly from groups in the university community who may not have previously considered this question worthy. This is the issue with blanket censorship of a single image in student media; while bans that are designed to prevent damage on the small scale continue, the big ideas that could tackle these issues on the big scale will continue to be silenced.