Recent news stories have shown that controversial yet mainstream speakers continue to be targeted by speaker policies on university campuses. In recent years, external speaker policies have been selectively applied at a number of campuses, targeting high profile progressive figures such as Germaine Greer, Maryam Nawazie and Peter Tatchell.
In the past two weeks, other controversial yet mainstream speakers found themselves subject to risk assessments and background checks. On 24 October, the Mail on Sunday journalist Peter Hitchens was invited by the University of Liverpool Politics Society to give a speech on the so-called ‘War on Drugs’. After refusing to sign what he considered an “intrusive” freedom of speech contract – which was reported to have included providing an advanced copy of what he planned to say to the Liverpool Guild of Students – Hitchens was refused entry to the university premises, and instead delivered his address outdoors.
Hitchens justified his decision, claiming afterwards: “Debate is only possible when people are ready to listen to it. Thought holding it in the open air made debate sharper”. The Liverpool Guild have since clarified that all external speakers are expected to “comply with the University’s Policy and Code of Practice Regarding Freedom of Speech”, and that they require “basic information” on the speaker topic rather than the actual speech.
On 26 October, The Daily Mail reported that the King’s College London (KCL) Student Union employssafe space marshals for the purpose of attending events. These officials are expected to raise concerns about any external speakers deemed to be at ‘medium or high risk’ of breaching the university’s ‘safe space’ policies. These include expressing offensive views that discriminate against ethnic or sexual minorities. The marshals are also tasked with distributing posters and recording incidents reported by audience members. Three of these marshals are believed to have been present at an event held by the King’s College Conservative Association, which featured the Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Like Hitchens, Rees-Mogg criticised the approach: “The point of university is to have vigorous debate and the safe spaces approach is the antithesis of what university should be about. If people don’t like what is being said they can go to other meetings”.
Finally, on 30 October, the University of Sussex Student Union instructed the ‘Liberate the Debate’ society to submit a speech by UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge on the subject of libertarianism and free speech. In order to speak there, he is expected to comply with the university’s ‘safe space’ and ‘zero tolerance’ policies. Etheridge said: “I have spoken at other universities and had a rough ride from the students which is what I expect. But I’ve never before has a university make it impossible for me to attend”.
Student Rights has always stressed that universities must challenge extremism alongside their legal duty to uphold freedom of expression. This is why we welcomed the Department for Education’s recent announcement that universities could be penalised if they fail to protect the latter.
At the same time, it is concerning that mainstream commentators, journalists, and elected officials find themselves being scrutinised or subject to excessive regulations, at a time when genuinely concerning extremists – such as the Hamas-supporting extremist Azzam Tamimi, who is due to speak at UCL, seem to face little challenge.
A recent Student Rights report, entitled ‘Extreme Speakers and Events in the 2016-17 Academic Year’, found that two of the universities caught up in these recent controversies have hosted extreme speakers in the past twelve months. KCL hosted Zahir Mahmood, Asim Khan from Sabeel, and Uthman Lateef from the Hittin Institute. The University of Sussex hosted Yusuf Chambers and Adnan Rashid from iERA, Abdullah al-Andalusi from the Muslim Debate Initiative, and Zara Faris from the Hittin Institute. None of these speakers were hosted on balanced platforms.
Such a disparity in approach suggests that many student unions are more concerned about controversial mainstream speakers than they are about those who have supported terrorism or have spread hatred and intolerance. It is notable that in all three of these examples, the student unions involved have not disclosed what it was that made them consider the speaker events to be medium or high risk. They have not been transparent with the decision making processes that led to these tendentious conclusions.
Concerned students have the right to hold them to account for adopting selective approaches. Inconsistent, haphazard and disproportionate policies benefit nobody but the real extremists, who are all too often overlooked.
Update 08/11/2017: The University of Sussex ‘Liberate the Debate’ society has postponed its event with UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge. A Sussex Student Union spokeswoman said: “We’ve been working hard with the student group to help ensure the event can go ahead.” She added: “In this case the panel did not have any information about the topic of the proposed speech when considering the risk of the event.”