By Poppy Askham and Max Kendix
Durham University has said an “investigation into the circumstances is now underway” following a controversial appearance from columnist Rod Liddle as a guest speaker at a South College Christmas formal on Friday evening.
Before Liddle had started to speak, around a dozen students walked out of the hall, a move branded at the time by Professor Tim Luckhurst, South College Principal, as “pathetic”.
Professor Luckhurst has since 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.
“My intention is never to offend. I hope to stimulate robust discussion and debate. I regret any offence that has arisen, but I fear we have no right not to be offended. As George Orwell noted, ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people things they do not want to hear.’”
In a statement this afternoon, Durham University said: “Durham University upholds Freedom of Speech within the Law. As such we welcome diversity of opinions from our students, staff and visitors.
“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.”
Most students were not made aware prior to the event that Rod Liddle would be attending or making a speech, and decided during the course of the meal to organise a walk-out before Liddle’s speech after looking up his record.
Several student groups have released statements on the issue and some students are organising protests against Professor Luckhurst this week.
Durham’s Intersectional Feminist Society has also launched an open letter condemning Liddle’s remarks and the decision to invite him to the event as a guest speaker.
The statement, which has been signed by more than 1,000 people and has received backing from Durham LGBT+ Association and Durham University Labour Club, calls for the South College Principal to issue an apology for hosting Liddle at the event.
The letter cites several students angry and upset about the visit, including one who said: “Durham is not a safe space for LBGT individuals such as myself. I’m furious that this was allowed to happen. If there is no apology or repercussions, I cannot see myself remaining here.”
The student groups called for greater transparency in the way guests at college events are chosen and for students to be made aware of all speakers in advance.
Durham’s branch of the Universities and College Union commented on the situation on Twitter, saying: “Many of us are utterly appalled by what happened on Friday at South College.” The branch will hold a committee meeting tomorrow and expect to publish a “statement and message of solidarity”.
Durham’s Working Class Students Association issued a statement earlier today calling for the University to investigate Friday night’s events. They stated: “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.”
South College’s JCR President Sean Hannigan has also been vocal in his condemnation of Liddle’s remarks both in a subsequent speech at the formal and a statement issued the following day.
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.”
Image: Durham University