I began working as a campaign representative, and most recently as an editor, for the #Right2Debate campaign a few months ago, in response to my growing awareness and acknowledgement of the epidemic of campus censorship. This is believed to be as a result of unclear student union policies, NUS hypocrisy, the ambiguity of safe space policies, and the government’s confusing implementation of PREVENT.
Joining R2D was my solution to beginning the uphill battle of lobbying for its implementation at universities, as a way to fill the void in free speech (signified by scandals of banned external speakers and various incidents of campus censorship) in a way that acted to reform NUS, not replace it and work alongside government requirements, not counter them.
Irrespective of the lack of a long history of no-platformed speakers at our university, the problem remains that our Students’ Guild does not have (much to a number of staff members’ disdain) a clear policy that specifies it will not no-platform speakers either. Because it is up to the Guild’s discretion whether a speaker is ‘contentious’ enough to be banned, it doesn’t actually matter that such an instance has not yet occurred – in my experience in various committees, just because it hasn’t, does not mean it won’t. The threat of shutting down events or halting the affiliation of societies due to complaints has actually been far more effective in deterring controversial societies or events from being established. However, another worrying trend is the rise of speakers who are left to legitimise narratives that infringe on others human rights (such as anti-semitism) if they are allowed to speak uncontested and/or are banned.
R2D instead offers an alternative to a new culture of censorship taking grip at universities, and an alternative to uncontested platforms for speakers who infringe on the inalienable traits of the individual (i.e. race, gender, sexual identification etc.). We look to establish 4 outcomes in regard to external speaker policy:
DEBATE OVER CENSORSHIP
There is currently no infrastructure in place in our student union to prevent the banning of an external speaker in the future, as it’s currently a policy relying on the guild’s discretion. Criticism has been raised over R2D being overly-reliant on the elected Guild Council representatives at that time, yet the revised policy would promote our student union/guild to consider options furthering debate (either through inviting a balancing speaker or an extended Q&A with an independent speaker) over the alternative of censorship.
It would also put a framework in place to challenge that decision through a petition system, and require the SG to publish its decisions for scrutiny (on whether it accepts or rejects the petition and why). Our policy would therefore encourage students to consistently hold the Guild accountable for decisions it makes, and ideally ensure that the trend of no-platforming stops at Exeter – (while there have been a number of threats as a result of complaints) we haven’t yet witnessed an instance of external speakers banned at our university, and my hope with the revised framework of this policy is to keep it that way.
DEBATE OVER UNCONTESTED PLATFORMS FOR CONTENTIOUS SPEAKERS
In regards to uncontested platforms, this unfortunately is something we’ve experienced at our university – at the Preventing Prevent talk which featured Moazzem Begg, director of CAGE, and chaired by the President of the Socialists’ Students society – one of the organizers of the event. All in all, while I personally agreed with the important need to discuss the issues raised, I believe it was undermined by the uncontested platform Begg was given – his affiliation with CAGE (an organization that continuously undermines the Muslim liberation movement, and continues to claim itself to be a champion of defending the marginalized when its leaders refuse to condemn FGM and defend terrorists and radical preachers on a regular basis) distracted from the overall message the event was trying to promote.
Numerous calls were made for a balancing speaker to be invited to contest Begg, and many were available that could equally criticized Prevent; yet regardless of availability, requests were denied on the basis that no one was available that would contest both Begg and Prevent, as well as the argument that “we can never have a speaker we all agree with. And it is in the nature of free speech to encourage debate and discussion” (Hayden Cooper).
A speaker many disagree with, however, is not precisely the variety of speaker that needs to be contested. It is instead a speaker who, through not being contested properly [i.e. through proper challenge by an invited speaker, or through independently moderated Q&A], should be considered “high risk”. To further elaborate, we call that those deemed “high risk” are those that infringe on the inalienable traits of the individual, such as anti-semitism or anti-Muslim bigotry. Left unchallenged, these aforementioned examples become legitimised in lecture halls and thus may cause harm to the student community it discriminates against.
Effectively, as no-platforming is currently the only formal option of contestation in our Student’s Guild, the students suffer from its current infrastructure.
However, had R2D been enacted, speakers who promote and legitimise the aforementioned “high risk” narratives – such as that of transphobia – would have received sufficient challenge either through a contesting speaker or contesting students through Q&A (with the option of submitting questions anonymously).Two concerns have been raised here. The first is whether liberation events promoting human rights (i.e. promoting trans rights) would be affected by R2D. The answer is no – R2D would only be enacted if the speaker infringed on other people’s rights. The second is whether conservative belief would constitute “high risk.” If the conservative belief still upholds the human rights of others (i.e. believing homosexuality is a sin, but that homosexuals deserve equal rights to everyone else), then it would not be affected by R2D. It is for this reason why R2D is so important, as it upholds free speech and safeguards the marginalised by ensuring narratives directed against their rights are challenged.
The fact is, that a lack of clarity – the lack of transparency on the actual policies themselves – have been equally detrimental and support the necessity for a policy to outline this. It’s been quite frustrating at times to try to find such policies that often aren’t published online, and while the Guild is taking huge steps in the right direction towards improving this, R2D would require it further. While the annual Spiked Free Speech University Rankings are not, and should not, be the sole indicator of how free and fair a university is in its policies and implementation of said policies, our recent digression from ‘Green’ to ‘Amber’ on their scale supports the concerns of many among the student body and the Student’s Guild – ‘How can we claim they’re fabricated when our free speech policies aren’t published and no platforming is done on a discretionary basis?’ While the University’s free speech policy has since been subsequently tracked down (see here) such concerns warrant the expansion of a policy-driven framework that prioritizes debate as an alternative to the ambiguities and possibility of censorship in the future.
It’s been argued that perhaps requiring the Guild to publish its decisions wouldn’t ensure those decisions would be properly scrutinized or held accountable. I disagree. I think the fact that my manifesto promise being adopted and implemented, before even our Guild Council had a chance to meet to discuss the policy, hear student’s concerns, and revise the policy, has been deeply troubling – and has potentially compromised the implementation. The Student Idea however, launched by a student who was likely made aware by the Guild’s tweet (or my own coverage of the policy’s adoption) has been a triumph for the democratic value of the Student Ideas system. Without the publicity of it, students wouldn’t have a chance to raise their concerns and what admittedly was and should have been a first draft of the policy was almost implemented. Consequently, the R2D policy is being continuously revised, its current predecessor has been postponed pending deliberation by the Liberation Council and other bodies of the Student’s Guild, and I continue to receive constructive criticism by students on a daily basis (and welcome more via email) regarding how to further improve the policy. Without clarity, such scrutiny of Guild decisions wouldn’t be possible, and for that reason, R2D advocates for an expansion of clarity.
There have been a number of concerns levied that question how uniformity would be ensured if this policy were enacted, especially in regards to marginalized students and liberation movements. Firstly, the university has a free speech policy which states, “An event which creates an environment of fear, harassment, intimidation, verbal abuse or violence, particularly as a result of age, disability, gender, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, and sexual orientation is likely to be unlawful.” This would automatically act as a safeguard for marginalized students, and the Guild would be held accountable for an instance in which this policy were infringed upon. However, due to the ambiguity of this regulation, and the overall ambiguity of many Guild policies in regards to their right to ban external speakers, more is needed. Right2Debate in this sense would protect the marginalized by ensuring that narratives that infringe on their rights are being properly contested with and not legitimized. Furthermore, if it is felt that the Student’s Guild is not ensuring that this is the case, the formal process to petition and be involved with the Guild’s decision making process are both aspects that Right2Debate would provide as a framework to demand the Guild be held accountable for ensuring uniformity in its decisions.
Criticisms have arisen regarding funding for invited speakers through R2D, questioning whether the system privileges societies with more funds available because they’d be more likely, if raising concerns about a high risk speaker, to choose inviting a contesting speaker over a Q&A. These concerns however ignore the fact that at present, societies are responsible for either funding their speakers or finding alternative methods of funding – this hasn’t prevented societies from hosting guest speakers, nor has it been problematic in ‘favoring societies who charge membership fees over those who don’t’, as even the Socialist Students have hosted various guest speaker events throughout the past year. Furthermore, inviting other speakers is not the only option available during R2D, as speakers invited to the platform could be a student or lecturer from our university, or contesting students may be delegated time during Q&A (with questions also being able to be submitted anonymously). #Right2Debate is simply proposing other options are made available as a framework, instead of banning external speakers if they are deemed ‘high risk’.
Student Rights’ recent statement demonstrated the vital need for #Right2Debate at the University of Exeter:
“Student Rights has visited the University of Exeter twice this academic year, once in January to take part in a Debating Society event, and last month to attend an anti-Prevent event, organized as part of the NUS ‘Students Not Suspects’ tour. At the Debating Society event, the presence of an independent moderator and a balanced platform created a lively discussion and gave plenty of time for all audience members to ask questions. In contrast, there was no debate at the ‘Students Not Suspects’ event, resulting in misinformation spread about Prevent going unchallenged. Worst of all, with a chair who was also involved in opposing Prevent, some students likely to have been critical of the campaign appear to have been deliberately not called upon during the Q&A. This was particularly problematic as CAGE Outreach Director Moazzam Begg, an individual with well-documented past links to violent extremism, was on the panel. Hopefully, with the Right2Debate policy in place, if a speaker like Begg is invited to the University of Exeter in future, then their views will be sufficiently challenged.”