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The Badger investigates Students’ Union External Speaker Policy

The University of Sussex Students’ Union has recently been under fire in regards to its external speaker policy, following controversy over UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge. The society which requested Etheridge’s presence subsequently retracted their request due to a list of stringent requirements by University of Sussex Students’ Union as they had deemed the speaker as ‘medium to high risk’. We examine the external speaker policy from start to finish…

The Union has an External Speaker Procedure in order to comply with charity commission guidance on political activities. This procedure is meant to ensure student and speaker safety, and to also ensure that external speakers can appear on campus within the Union’s interpretation of charity law.

All societies requesting external speakers coming on to campus must submit an external speaker registration form to the Union at least 10 working days before the event takes place in order to determine the risk of the speaker.

When asked how the decision was reached with regard to this event, Students’ Union Activities Officer Lucy Williams said: “All external speaker requests made by student groups are handled in the same way as outlined in our external speaker policy”.

‘Risk’ refers to the extent to which an external speaker may breach UK law or Union policies in ways which may promote terrorism, or incite violence or racial or religious hatred. The Union’s guidance for students on external speakers states: “In the rare event that an external speaker is flagged as medium or high risk, many things could happen. The student group hosting the external speaker will be notified of this and, where possible, the Students’ Union will work with the student group to put in regulatory steps such as limits on attendees, presence of Union or University staff or requesting external speaker speeches in advance of the event to reduce the risk of the event and ensure that it can happen safely. In some rare instances, events may have to be postponed until satisfactory measures have been put in place, or the event may not be allowed to go ahead at all if it the event is considered high risk and regulatory steps will not be sufficient.”

However, there are ambiguities in the official SU policy. The External Speaker Procedure differs from the guidance written for student groups. While the guidance (quoted above) lists the presence of university staff as a potential regulatory step, the official policy document contains no reference to this measure.

Lucy Williams, in the official Union response, added that “having reviewed the process and listened to students we’ll be providing much clearer information to event organisers about the reasons we’re asking for regulatory steps. We’ll also make sure we talk through the steps in person with the event organisers so we can discuss and adapt them if necessary”.

What’s more, some left-wing speakers have not recently been subject to the same stringent requirements despite their association with groups who have advocated revolutionary violence. For example, Adam Booth was expelled from the Labour Party in 2017 for association with Socialist Appeal, a Trotskyist newspaper. Additionally, he ran for President of the Cambridge University’s Students’ Union on an openly “militant socialist programme”. The checklist for risk assessment clearly states that if there are any allegations that a speaker has “promoted, supported or glorified terrorism or violence” then the event must be designated as medium-high risk. This is the case even when there is no evidence to support those allegations. This designation means that these speakers were not put before the panel which decides regulatory steps apply.

Rob Sewell, who spoke at Sussex on the 20th of September 2017, wrote in one of his articles on socialist.net: “Genuine Marxists should urge workers to stay and fight to change their unions into fighting organisations and elect new militant leaders”. Fred Weston, another speaker at Sussex, has been an active Marxist for over forty years, first joining the Labour Party Young Socialists in the 1970s in Britain and immediately aligning with the Trotskyist Militant Tendency. These speakers have not been subject to any restrictions despite their apparent endorsements for incitement of violence. Both Booth and Sewell spoke on campus this year. We asked the SU President if she was aware how previous decisions were made, but have not received an answer at this time.

Although, she did inform us that the panel is always comprised of 4 trustees. The Badger understands that in this case there were 4 officers on the panel. In addition, two members of Union staff were present.

The Badger understands that in the Bill Etheridge case the panel was split on the decision-making process and that the decision was compromised on by some officers. Officers also disagreed about the safety of students on campus in regards to the presence of Bill Etheridge.

If the society disagrees with the decision reached by the panel they have the option to appeal against the decision by writing to the President and CEO of the Students’ Union within 3 working days, giving the reasons why they believe the original decision should be reconsidered.  The appeal will be considered within 3 working days and the society will be informed of the outcome.  This decision is final.

Gustafsson also told The Badger: “We decided to open up the floor at Council in regards to these events to allow students the opportunity to ask any questions they may have, and if you have any questions or queries in relation to this feel free to get in contact with us. The External Speaker Procedure is also coming up for annual review at the Union’s December Trustee meeting, and we will take the discussion held with students at and outside Council to this”.

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