Conservatives are right to defend free speech — but we should pick our battles wisely

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You would have to be living under a rock not to have heard about the recent controversy surrounding the Principal of South College and a certain political commentator named Rod Liddle. In fact, I rather envy you if you are, as I can hardly imagine the bliss of a world free of endless political disputes, unnecessary shouting and angry Twitter threads the incident has sparked. 

So, let’s talk about what happened. Principal of South College Professor Tim Luckhurst, invited columnist Rod Liddle to a Christmas formal at his college, where Liddle gave a speech that included remarks on trans issues and colonialism which greatly upset a number of students present at the dinner. Some of these students walked out of the room before the speech — only to be branded “pathetic” by their Principal. Many are now upset with the way Prof Luckhurst conducted himself, and Durham Students’ Union has called for his resignation. 

What has surprised me is the swiftness with which some people on the right — on my side of the political spectrum, that is — have rushed to turn this into a free-speech issue. Now, I am a big supporter of free speech, and I have previously written an article in Palatinate outlining my concerns about freedom of expression on campus. However, I fail to see what the South College controversy has to do with this very important subject. 

Discussions about political and social issues need to happen in appropriate settings, and a Christmas dinner just isn’t one of them.  

Firstly, why on earth would you invite someone whose views you know to be incredibly controversial and whose manners you know to be rather ill-suited to a Christmas dinner? Christmas is a time to put our differences aside and come together in celebration of all that is good and beautiful in this world: our families, our friends, and the love that is all around us. Discussions about political and social issues need to happen in appropriate settings, and a Christmas dinner just isn’t one of them. 

Secondly, were the students made aware of the fact that Liddle would be speaking at the event when they were booking their tickets for it? If not — and it is becoming increasingly clear that most of them were not — then the students’ outrage is entirely justified. I myself would be rather annoyed if I paid a hefty sum of money (that I could happily spend in a pub) for an event to come to said event and be forced to listen to a radical communist who defends the Soviet Union; I too would walk out, and I too would at the very least expect my Principal to respect my decision to do so.

Thirdly, it seems fairly obvious to me that Rod Liddle was being deliberately provocative and was using crude and offensive language on purpose. Anybody with a modicum of integrity should be able to admit that he is deeply ill-mannered, and that he has no interest in constructive debate. And even if you agree with the essence of what he said, you should still be able to admit that the language that he used and the “jokes” that he made were completely unacceptable, certainly so in a public place. 

So, let’s pick our battles wisely. There are certainly times when you need to stand up for free speech and make your voice heard. I myself have expressed views which have proven to be controversial, but I have always strived to do so with a degree of civility and in appropriate settings — and this is what college leaders and external speakers should be expected to do as well.

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2 thoughts on “Conservatives are right to defend free speech — but we should pick our battles wisely

  • Perhaps it’s a free speech issue not because of the facts of the event itself, but rather the fact that the aftermath will be used as an excuse to put in measures that will have an impact on actual free speech in the future. Liddle and Luckhurst may both be history, but if future speakers are forced to provide copies of speeches in advance, and “trigger warnings” are mandated on future events with “controversial” speakers, that will have a chilling effect on a much wider range of opinions and discourses on campus well beyond the realm of Spectator opinion columns.

    Reply
    • A fair point, certainly something to consider.

      Reply

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