South College students staged a walkout during a Christmas formal last night in protest at the event’s guest speaker, columnist Rod Liddle.
The college’s Principal, Professor Tim Luckhurst, shouted “at South College, we value freedom of speech” and “pathetic” as students left before Liddle’s speech had begun on Friday evening.
Durham’s Working Class Students Association said that “allowing Rod Liddle a platform to enable his transphobia and racism is beyond inappropriate.”
The Association called for the event to be investigated by the University: “Transphobia and racism cannot be defended under the notion of ‘political views’ or ‘academic freedom’ and it has no place on campus, where students are supposed to feel safe”.
Durham University Labour Club expressed similar views, stating: “Our university doesn’t owe hate a platform.
“We unequivocally condemn the decision to invite Rod Liddle. Trans people have a fundamental right to safety and security on campus. It’s a disgrace that this was compromised last night under the veil of ‘academic freedom.”
Liddle started his speech saying he was disappointed to not see any sex workers that night, in reference to recent controversy over safety training provided by Durham University to student sex workers.
The Spectator and Sunday Times columnist then claimed the left railed against “science or pure facts”, saying “a person with an X and a Y chromosome, that has a long, dangling penis, is scientifically a man, and that is pretty much, scientifically, the end of the story”.
He went on to say: “It is fairly easily proven that colonialism is not remotely the major cause of Africa’s problems, just as it is very easy to prove that the educational underachievement of British people of Caribbean descent or African Americans is nothing to do with institutional or structural racism”.
Liddle also talked about the UK’s forced adoption policy between 1945 and 1975, saying that attitudes now put the woman not the child first, and that anger about the policy did not take sufficient account of the child’s mental health and economic circumstances. He finished the speech with a message about the importance of listening to and doubting people’s opinions.
Around a dozen students walked out before Liddle’s after-dinner speech and several more followed suit during it. Afterwards, very few applauded the speech, and where protocol is to rise for the high table to process out, nearly all remaining students in the hall stayed seated.
After the speech, a few students shouted “disgusting” and “racist” at Liddle as he walked out of the venue. That evening, a Stonewall “Some people are trans. Get over it!” poster was stuck onto the door of the Principal’s Office.
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.”
Hannigan continued: “I am personally saddened and irritated that the events of last night occurred and that people came away so divided”, adding that he would be speaking to the Principal next week about the matter. He also expressed the view that Equality, Diversity and Inclusion training should be rolled out more quickly and made compulsory for all University students and staff.
Luckhurst defended Liddle in an email response to a student complaint, stating: “My guest’s topic was tolerance. He spoke about the importance of listening to alternative perspectives. He attacked nobody.”
“We have no right not to be offended, but offence doesn’t harm us, and freedom of speech means nothing unless it encompasses the right to say things with which others disagree profoundly.”
Palatinate understands that the event marks Rod Liddle’s first University appearance since 2003, and that Durham University was made aware of his visit in advance.
Liddle was invited to South College as Principal Tim Luckhurst’s guest. The pair worked together on numerous occasions in the past, including for the Labour Party and the BBC.
The University recognises Freedom of Expression as a “fundamental right”, noting in its policy statement that protection of this right extends to “views which may shock, disturb or offend the deeply held beliefs of others”.
The policy also states that the University “expects all its members and visitors … to be sensitive to its diverse and inclusive community” and that in some situations it will prevent forms of expression “which spread, incite or seek to justify hatred” based on any of the 2010 Equality Act’s protected characteristics, which include gender reassignment and race.
The student outcry comes amid a national debate over a parliamentary bill that proposes legal requirements for universities and students’ unions to protect freedom of speech. Under the proposal, speakers would be able to claim compensation for “non-platforming” incidents and non-complying institutions could be fined.
Durham Students’ Union (SU) has labelled the bill “politically motivated”. Opportunities Officer Jack Ballingham noted that less than 1% of external speakers were rejected nationally last year according to data from the Office for Students and that no application for speakers received by the Durham SU had been rejected in the 2020-21 academic year.
The SU has endorsed amendments to the bill put forward by the National Union of Students which would cap speakers’ compensation claims and set up a system for Freedom of Speech complaints.
Friday’s events also follow the resignation of Professor Kathleen Stock from Sussex University earlier this term. Stock’s controversial views on gender identity provoked a student campaign calling for her dismissal and subsequently sparked national debate over academic freedoms.
Palatinate has contacted the University for comment.
Image: Durham University