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06 October 1998

This Wasn't Hardcore ...

This wasn't hardcore ... but they pulped it anyway. Brendon Craigie, president of the Free Speech Society at Leeds University, reports

Just before the start of Leeds University freshers' fair two thousand free copies of GQ, the men's lifestyle magazine, were delivered to the offices of Leeds University students' union. Two days later they had all been destroyed. Why? Because the pictures of sexy girls contained in these magazines were deemed to be 'harassing' one union member.

If this sounds a bit extreme, bear in mind that in 1994 the students' union at Leeds University set a precedent on the subject of free speech when it resolved to ban the Sun - the top-selling national tabloid newspaper - because it 'portrayed women as sex objects'. The Sun's contents, it was argued, were inconsistent with the union's stated opposition to 'all forms of discrimination'. In 1997 the ban was lifted, in effect giving the students the freedom to decide for themselves. But one year later GQ, which has far more in common with other mainstream lifestyle magazines such as Cosmopolitan or FHM than it has with the Sun, has managed to provoke the same hostile response.

According to the communications officer (a post voted on by students) Anna Richards, GQ approached the Union to ask if they could promote the magazine during freshers' week. To gain the union's approval, GQ proposed to send a couple of sample copies. The sample copies arrived together with another 1,998: a total of 2,000, rather than the requested two. Initially the pile of magazines was covered by a green tarpaulin, sporting the logo 'LUU Women's Society: Changing the World'. On top of the banner, the union placed a disclaimer stating that while it does not support the 'objectification of men and women', due to the decision on the Sun it accepted people's right to decide for themselves. All seemed fine until a female life member of the union (last year's women's officer) complained that she felt 'harassed' by the 'concealed' magazines. Because of the union's broad definition of harassment the complaint was upheld. The following day the magazines were hauled away and destroyed.

When approached, Anna Richards stated that 'the fact the magazines were free meant that it appeared the union was actively promoting the magazine'. You might argue that this says more about the union's obsession with 'protecting' students from what it perceives to be threatening, rather than any real concerns of students. After all, have you ever known students to question the political significance of freebies and handouts? And when questioned about the reason for destroying the magazines, she replied: 'We have a very clear anti-harassment policy. If one of our members feels harassed it won't be tolerated.' The union, she added, 'is like a private members' club, students set the rules'.

But students who saw the magazine were astounded. 'It's pathetic, people should be able to read and view what they like' said English student Melissa Bedwell. Fresher Louisa Parks, who will be studying French and politics, had a simple message for students viewing 'offensive' material: 'If you don't want to read it - then don't!'.

Given the speed at which the magazines were disappearing in the union, it seems strange that the decision to have them destroyed can be justified in the name of protecting its members' interests. A lot of students come to university to escape the strictures of their parents. In light of the union's reaction to GQ magazine those parents appear to be very liberal in comparison to the union executive. How ironic that our universities, which are meant to be home to free thinking and critical debate, are in fact the prime stalking grounds for Big Sister.

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