Student groups will be required to confirm all their external speakers with Durham SU under a new freedom of speech policy which passed in SU Assembly yesterday.
According to the policy, student groups will be required to inform Durham SU of any event that involves external speakers at least two weeks prior to the event, and any requests for external speakers that are “controversial or higher risk” will be required to be requested with four weeks’ notice. This will apply to events held on and off campus, and both digital and in-person events.
Student groups will not be permitted to confirm or publicise any events involving external speakers until a request has been approved by Durham SU.
The policy gives Durham SU the right to cancel, prohibit or postpone any event involving an external speaker, if the policy is not adhered to or if risks cannot be mitigated successfully.
In order to reduce the level of risk, the policy also gives Durham SU the right to appoint an independent chair for the event, or require additional security or stewarding or extra speakers at the event to provide “a balance of perspectives.” Speakers may also be required to submit a copy of their speech to Durham SU for approval in advance.
Durham SU will consider a speaker to be high-risk if they are part of a terrorist organisation or if they are considered to hold extremist views that may cause harm to specific groups.
A speaker also may be considered high risk if they are “widely regarded as controversial,” or if the speaker is likely to cause “fear or alarm to the student body,” or “unrest and overcrowding.”
An Opportunities Coordinator will review requests by student groups by carrying out online research of the speaker and their organisation. The speaker’s social media pages will also be reviewed. Any higher risk speakers will be referred to Durham SU’s Opportunities Manager and Director of Services for approval. Requests they do not approve will be referred to the Durham SU Chief Executive.
Durham SU oversees approximately 250 student groups whom it is legally responsible for. Students groups that are not affiliated with Durham SU such as the Durham Union Society will not be required to adhere to this policy.
One SU Representative told Palatinate that “there is a level of ambiguity” in the policy, including the definitions of terms such as “controversy” and “fear.” However, they said they were not “overly concerned about the policy being used to stifle open discussion at the University,” although they warned that this is something “we must be wary of.”
In a recent interview with Purple Radio, Durham SU President Seun Twins explained that anyone with a “financial or legal” connection to anyone linked with controversy will be subject to a risk assessment by Durham SU, and reiterated that “freedom of speech is not the freedom to say anything evil,” in line with the policy which states that “the freedom to express views must be balanced with the need to secure freedom from harm for students and communities.”
If a student group disagrees with the decision taken by the SU, it will have the right to submit a complaint under the Durham SU Complaints Procedure. However, this will not reverse the decision until the complaint is resolved.
The freedom of speech policy will be passed onto the Board of Trustees for approval.
Image: Amana Moore