Extremist university speaker ban axed after ‘freedom of speech’ concerns

Home Secretary Theresa May dropped plans to ban external extremist speakers at British universities and colleges on Friday 20 March, following strong opposition from the Liberal Democrats and the House of Lords.

The anti-terrorism measures were designed to avoid spreading extremist ideas on campus. May had justified the plans, saying that academics must “play their part” in the fight against radicalisation of young British people.

The guidelines advocated by May required student unions to inform university authorities of all visiting speakers at least 14 days in advance of the planned speech, allowing time for background checks to be made. The university would then have the opportunity to axe the event, if deemed necessary.

However, the campus speaker proposals, as well as many aspects of the Conservative-led long-term counter-extremism measures, caused a rift in the coalition government.

On 14 March, Lib Dem Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg vetoed May’s plan, citing concerns about freedom of speech and violation of student autonomy.

The blocking and subsequent abandonment of the extremist speaker plan follows another rebellion against Theresa May, after fellow Conservatives including Chancellor George Osborne rejected her push to expel international students from the UK after graduation.

The clash over extremist speakers on campus has provoked reactions at the University of Edinburgh, where freedom of speech has recently been in the spotlight.

On 11 March, Teviot hosted a debate centred around the question “Should we end censorship on campus?” The event was organised by libertarian magazine spiked, which gave EUSA and the University of Edinburgh a ‘Red’ Free Speech Ranking in February as a result of their ‘safe space’ and ‘no platform’ policies.

The decision to stop selling The Sun on campus and the banning of Robin Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines” also added to spiked’s assessment.

The spiked debate proved extremely divisive and provoked angry reactions. One audience member even shouted “You are a bunch of f*cking c***ts”, at the end. The heckle was directed at the side arguing that the university is stifling freedom of speech by not giving people with potentially offensive or harmful views a platform.

Outgoing EUSA VPAA Dash Sekhar was in the audience and asked the question: “Did you really just tell me that I need to face racism from my student union?”

Speaking to The Student, however, Sekhar acknowledged that Theresa May’s anti-extremist proposals should be dealt with differently to discriminatory views on campus.

Sekhar said: “No platform policies remain an important tactic for student unions campaigning against racist and homophobic bigotry. However, I’m deeply sceptical of the government’s clearly islamophobic and paranoid plans to ‘tackle extremism’, and welcome opposition from Clegg in this case.”

Newly elected EUSA President Jonny Ross-Tatam told The Student: “I’d say that you have to be very careful when considering whether to ban people from speaking. Each case is different and it depends on how you define ‘extreme’. But in my view, it is often better to expose ideas above ground rather than push them below ground, when they can be even more inflammatory.”

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