This month, Durham Student’s Union passed a new freedom of speech policy, under which student groups are required to approve external speakers with the SU at least two weeks prior to an event. The policy allows the SU to cancel, prohibit or postpone any event involving an external speaker and has made national news headlines amidst a mixed response from students. Palatinate Comment asked two contributors for their opinion on the policy, and its effect on freedom of speech on campus.
For: the SU should have the power to ban those who could cause harm
By Katie Tobin
Durham Students’ Union has announced that student groups will be required to authorise any external speakers at least two weeks prior to the event.
“Controversial or higher risk” speakers will be required to give at least four weeks’ notice. Speakers could be considered as high risk if they are “widely regarded as controversial” or if they have “links to any person or groups connected with controversy.”
This new policy applies to all university-led events, both on and off campus, digitally and in-person. As to be expected, the policy has drawn backlash. Sarah Kuszynski, former Durham Union Society President, told The Telegraph: “the additional restrictions are indicative of wider issues with overbearing SU bureaucracy, which could prevent students from having meaningful discussions as part of student groups, and therefore have a chilling effect on free speech on campus.”
The university responded, stating that “all students have the right to study in an environment which is free from harassment and our commitment to protecting free speech must be balanced with our safeguarding responsibilities to all students.”
On a surface level, the stifling of one’s free speech seems undeniably troubling. But by conflating the censorship of problematic speech, or even hate speech, as a denial of free speech, we are denying the historicism of marginalised suffering and violence. The new policy poses a question to which there is no finite answer: if we allow all speech under the guise of “free speech”, what becomes of hate speech?
There is no denying that tolerating or upholding problematised views is, in itself, detrimental to marginalised communities. Interweaving these subtle nuances of intolerance has devastating consequences for marginalised communities; from overt hostility and discrimination, to violence, rape, and even murder.
Undoubtedly, it seems that in recent years, the term “free speech” has become a kneejerk reactionary response to problematic rhetoric. This defence shifts the onus of public villainy from certain individuals to the disparaging public by denying them the right to “exercise their right to freedom of expression”, as posited by the ‘gender critical’ group, Women’s Place UK. The group has faced extensive backlash for how their views have negatively impacted the trans community.
Yet, instead of turning our attention to an extremely marginalised and vulnerable group, who are at constant threat to violence and discrimination, priority is given to those who claim to be “silenced” in national publications like The Telegraph and The Times.
When influential speakers with sizeable platforms are free to make statements that pose risk to the vulnerable, it’s important to consider that not everyone is given the scope or platform to respond. Ultimately, the fight against ‘silencing’ and for ‘free speech’ is not as black and white as it first appears.
In 2019, former Humberside police officer Harry Miller was contacted by the force following complaints about transphobic tweets from his personal account. His lawyers argued that official police guidance on recording hate incidents against transgender people poses a “substantial chilling effect” on freedom of expression.
It seems almost incredulous that the response to hate incidents is to argue for one’s right to do so, baring no consideration for the consequences of these harmful and potentially violent words and ideas. But this age-old rhetoric isn’t new; the idea that one’s right to expression and prejudiced ideology, regardless of the impact it has on others, is deeply embedded throughout history.
As SU President Seun Twins stated in an interview with Purple Radio, “freedom of speech is not the freedom to say anything evil”. If speakers are forced to reconsider whether their rhetoric or affiliations pose an intent to harm or incite harm against vulnerable groups, then this reaffirms the vitality of the new SU policy.
By refusing to provide a platform to speakers who pose a threat to the vulnerable and the marginalised, the Students’ Union is setting a clear boundary against intolerance. Not only does it protect students in need, but it sets the precedent that human rights are not up for debate.
In a day and age where anyone is capable of voicing their opinion, there is an unclear boundary between free speech and hate speech. The peaceful and tolerant co-existence of humanity is not something that should be compromised under the guise of freedom of speech. From this, one thing is certain; using carefully coded language to redirect hate speech towards marginalised bodies into a form of personal preference or philosophical debate needs to stop.
Against: the new policy is a troubling extension of SU bureaucracy
Freedom of speech is a complicated term. With cancel culture, political correctness and no-platforming dominating headlines, the concept is constantly embroiled in everyday political discourse. It is against this context that Durham University finds itself (again) in the news, this time concerning the SU’s tighter regulation for external speakers as part of a new Freedom of Speech Policy.
It goes without saying that the right to freedom of speech is an integral part of democracy. Its role in higher education cannot be overstated: students must be able to consider and debate contentious issues, and to be exposed to ways of thinking different from their own. It is for this simple reason that the new policy, despite seemingly admirable intentions, should be regarded with a critical eye.
According to the 2019 guide on this issue from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the right to freedom of expression is not absolute and should be balanced with other legal duties. This means that freedom of speech can be lawfully restricted if necessary, for instance to prevent unlawful discrimination and harassment, or for security concerns.
This is where the new policy is valid through its proposed risk mitigation methods, which include the appointment of an independent chair or additional guests at an event to provide a “balance of speakers”.
However, it is important to recognise that, legally, freedom of speech should not be restricted just because people may find the opinions of a particular speaker upsetting or insulting. For the SU to reasonably prohibit an external speaker, there needs to be a genuine legal concern, such as the incitement of violence. The policy currently lists eight potential reasons for which an external speaker request may be deemed “high risk”. For the most part, these are vague, subjective and imprecise.
For example, a speaker may be considered “high risk” if they are “widely regarded as controversial”. Here, the meaning of “controversial” is not defined, despite its inherently subjective nature. Similarly, a speaker may be banned if they are “likely to cause harm to specific groups”. Again, “cause harm” is not defined, despite there being a genuine legal distinction between mere offence and unlawful harassment or extremism.
This lack of precision when considering the relative risk associated with external speakers is crucial. Greater transparency is needed to prevent the SU from simply silencing the views of those with whom they disagree, without legal justification.
The policy also needs to be applied consistently. Speaking to The Telegraph, a spokesperson for the Free Speech Union raised this concern, stating that “only conservative speakers will have to jump through hoops”. This fear plays into a wider, national, concern about the political agendas of student unions.
A letter to Boris Johnson signed by 21 Tory MPs last month raised the problem of “activist” student unions with “narrow social justice” agendas, arguing that “a tiny minority of leftist activists have imposed their will on the student body.” While I do not claim that such a reductive description can be extended to Durham, the contents of this letter raise fundamental questions about the role of political motivations within student union policies.
Overall, the idea that the SU should set the standard of democratic debate within Durham is, frankly, laughable, with many viewing the policy as only the latest extension of the SU’s already hulking bureaucracy. While some aspects are credible, such as its obvious intention to prevent the unlawful harassment of minorities, the SU must ensure consistency and provide greater clarity on the conditions for which a speaker can be prohibited.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission report states that “any decision about speakers and events should seek to promote and protect the right to freedom of expression.” We must heed this advice and tread carefully.
Illustration by Samantha Fulton