What happened at South College was irresponsible

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Christmas formals are meant to be fun: too much wine, bad Christmas jokes, some slightly dry turkey. Unfortunately, for students (and Durham University’s PR team), South College’s Christmas formal seemed to miss the Christmas cheer memo, instead replacing festivity with what I and many others see as vile transphobia, racism and sexism, courtesy of an after-dinner speech from controversial columnist Rod Liddle. 

In response to the event, Durham’s SU has put out a damning statement condemning Professor Tim Luckhurst, the Principal of South College. The SU argues that inviting Liddle to give a speech at Christmas formal without warning the majority of students in advance, and then berating them for protesting was a “straightforward abuse of power”. They have called for him to resign, claiming that he “has failed in his duty of care as Principal to South College students”.

Professor Luckhurst has a duty of care to his students

It is hard to disagree with this. In inviting Liddle to give a speech, Professor Luckhurst knew what was coming. Liddle, an associate editor at The Spectator, has made a living out of inflammatory, extreme, and downright offensive opinions. 

In 2012, he joked in poor taste that he could not be a teacher because he “could not remotely conceive of not trying to shag the kids”, going on to defend himself “I don’t think I’d have dabbled much below year 10” — though arguing you probably wouldn’t try to shag students under 14 is not a stellar defence given the age of consent in the UK is 16, and the small issue of statutory rape. In another piece, Liddle questioned whether watching child pornography should be illegal and in an article about Boris Johnson’s comments about burkas quipped “my own view is that there is not nearly enough Islamophobia within the Tory party”. 

Liddle’s controversial opinions on transgender rights, race and single parents have also been well publicised. It is clear Liddle, like other social parasites (cough Katie Hopkins) thrives (and profits) from outrage. His speech, which began by joking that he was disappointed not to see any sex workers, was deliberately provocative and crude. It seems clear to me that his intention was to offend and provoke a reaction which presumably he could then use to claim he had been cancelled by a mob of woke university students. 

Professor Luckhurst defended the speech arguing it was intended to “stimulate robust discussion and debate” to display South College’s “sincere commitment to free speech”. He berated students who walked out before his friend’s speech, calling the walk-out “pathetic”. There is also video footage circulating on social media in which he appears to tell a student confronting him that they “don’t belong at university”. Another widely-shared clip shows his wife calling students “arses” in the aftermath of the formal. She later took to Twitter to describe students as “inadequates”. 

Such behaviour is entirely unacceptable and inappropriate. Professor Luckhurst has a duty of care to his students, one that appears to have been disregarded. 

Students must feel safe and respected on campus. 

University is a home away from home, it is an environment where you are meant to feel safe, supported and respected. This does not include being subjected to a speech at an event you have paid for during which you are told your identity or struggles are invalid. As Sean Hannigan, the South College’s JCR President told Palatinate “To question someone’s right to exist or their status as whoever they feel to be is not a matter of debate or free speech – it is that of human rights.” He is entirely right.  

Liddle has told the BBC that his speech concerned “tolerance” and that university students “need to listen to views contrary to their own”. This is frankly patronising, students are perfectly capable of engaging in debate with people with who they disagree without making hateful comments. 

Yes, people have a right to free speech and the right to offend, but there is categorically no right that forces people to listen, applaud or respect what you are saying, that is simply a courtesy, one that often must be earned. You can say whatever you want but you are not free from consequence, people have the right to criticise you or simply ignore you. If you make racist or transphobic comments you should be held accountable and you certainly should not be given a platform at a university. Durham University cannot stand for such.

As a final point, if controversial speakers have been invited to speak at an institution like a university, those who will hear the speech should be warned in advance, so they can make the decision whether or not to attend. Not doing so is a significant failure in duty of care. Being told, for example, that your identity is invalid as a scientific fact could have significant consequences for an individual’s wellbeing.

In not warning students, Professor Luckhurst and those in positions of power who knew about Liddle’s visit in advance were irresponsible at best and downright neglectful at worst. Thus, although the SU’s calls for Luckhurst to resign may seem drastic, the issue must be considered one of student safety. Students must feel safe and respected on campus. 

Image: Theo Burman

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