By Theo Burman
The Principal of South College has issued an apology after he shouted at students who were staging a walkout just before columnist Rod Liddle was due to give a speech at a Christmas formal.
In an email to all South students, Professor Tim Luckhurst, who is also Associate Pro Vice Chancellor (Engagement) at Durham University, said: “On Friday evening a group of South College students exercised their right to leave the College Formal before my guest, Rod Liddle, began to speak. I responded to their decision by reminding the students that South College is committed to the defence of free speech.
“When they did not return to their seats, I called their walkout ‘pathetic’. My anger reflected my sincere commitment to freedom of speech. However, I was wrong to describe the students’ action as pathetic and I apologise unreservedly for doing so. The students had as much right to absent themselves from the speech as my guest had to make it.”
The apology comes amidst student outrage at controversial comments made by Liddle at the formal regarding transgender people, colonialism and single mothers. Several South College students walked out before Liddle had begun to speak, at which point Luckhurst shouted “at South College, we value freedom of speech” and “pathetic”.
Several more students exited during the course of the speech and following the formal, Liddle was approached by students who shouted “disgusting” and “racist” and a Stonewall “Some people are trans. Get over it!” poster was stuck onto the door of the Principal’s Office later that night. Post-it notes on a South College window also read “transphobes are not welcome here Tim”.
Both Professor Luckhurst and the JCR President Sean Hannigan made speeches after Liddle had finished in which they defended his right to express his views. Hannigan expressed strong disagreement with the speech. Stating that “sex and gender are not the same thing”, Hannigan was greeted by cheers and applause from student attendees.
Hannigan told Palatinate, “South College prides itself on being a college where freedom of speech is respected alongside that of the individual.” He went on to stress that, “to question someone’s right to exist or their status as whoever they feel to be is not a matter of debate or that of free speech – it is that of human rights.”
Luckhurst had previously told Palatinate: “Sincere commitment to freedom of speech is inevitably challenging. It requires us to consider ideas with which we may disagree instinctively. I regard that as a crucial part of the excellent education on offer here at Durham.
The University stated it has launched “an investigation into the circumstances” in a statement that also condemned the views espoused in Liddle’s speech. They said: “Protection of the right to free speech extends to discussion of issues that are controversial, including the expression of views which may shock, disturb, or offend others.
“The University categorically does not agree with the comments reported from a speech given by an external speaker at this occasion, and is concerned at reports that the behaviours exhibited at the occasion fall short of those that we expect.
“The exchange of ideas within the University should at all times be conducted in a tolerant manner. Everybody has the right to live, work and study in a respectful environment.
“We are looking into this as a matter of urgency, and an investigation into the circumstances is now underway.”
Several student groups have published statements condemning Liddle’s comments and the decision to host him as a guest speaker. Durham University’s Intersectional Feminist penned an open letter calling for Professor Luckhurst to apologise and for there to be greater transparency surrounding the way in which guests are invited to speak at college events.