These comment pieces represent the opinions of both the Students’ Union and Liberate the Debate with regards to the recent cancellation of the Society’s freedom of speech debate.
Students’ Union President’s response –
On Friday I made the decision not to chair an event organised by Liberate the Debate (LtD), and I know some students have been wondering why.
To put it simply, I decided that it was not appropriate for me to chair this event as I did and do not want to be perceived to endorse the inflammatory views of Carl Benjamin, and through this alienate a significant group of students from our Union who had shared their concerns with me. My chairing of the event had come to stand in the way of the greater role I have at Sussex – namely, to be your lead representative of the Union.
When LtD first notified us of the event, the Union was made aware that one of the speakers – Carl Benjamin, also known as Sargon of Akkad – had in the past made abhorrent comments towards women and people of colour. However, none of the comments that were found as part of our external speakers procedure were illegal nor did they meet any criteria in the procedure that would prevent him from taking part in the event.
As such, there was little we could legally do but to allow the event to go ahead. We worked with the society to make sure that Carl Benjamin’s views would be properly challenged, for example by debating an anti-fascist and by giving the audience time to question the speakers’ views.
It was also decided that I was to chair the event to make sure that at no point would he be given the opportunity to spout abuse while at Sussex. The reason why I agreed to chair the event was not to endorse the views of the speakers, but to ensure that he and the other speaker would be properly challenged if necessary.
However, after it was decided that I was to chair this event, I was approached by a number of students of colour who shared their significant concerns about this speaker and my involvement. Students whose identity felt questioned and existence unsafe by the presence of Carl Benjamin on this campus, a place the students call home. That is why I decided to recuse myself from the event, and let the society know that I would no longer be chairing it.
We offered the society another independent chair in case they chose to go ahead despite the concerns highlighted from students, but made it clear that I was no longer an appropriate chair for this event.
If I’m honest, I was quite relieved to no longer be chairing the event with Carl Benjamin. I stand for a kind and inclusive Union, and for challenging and respectful debates – neither of which I believe Carl Benjamin nor his views uphold.
I hope Sussex will understand the reasons I had, and respect the decision I made.
Liberate the Debate’s response –
It is important to recognise the legitimate concerns of those students who approached our Students’ Union regarding the presence of one of the speakers on our campus. However, whilst we recognise and categorically defend their freedom to expression, I have to express disappointment that such recognition is not reciprocated.
I have no doubt that once again, the opposing narrative will pin the blame of the cancellation onto the actions we took, but this ignores a wider context.
In our correspondence with the Students’ Union, it was made clear to us that we had full discretion in selecting an appropriate chair, without regard to any vetting which the Students’ Union may deem appropriate.
I hope that our Students’ Union will take some degree of responsibility for the events which transpired, given that they made the decision to pull the Chair five hours before the event and fully cancel it as the speakers arrived on campus.
One cannot ignore the findings of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, to which both our Students’ Union President and our Vice-Chancellor provided evidence, which found that we ought to have the ‘right to say things which, though lawful, others may find disturbing or upsetting.’ The report found that there are a variety of attitudes which are restricting free speech on university campuses, including ‘intolerant attitudes, often incorrectly using the banner of “no-platforming” and “safe-space” policies’. In accordance with this report, I believe that minority groups who hold unpopular opinions should not be subject to undue scrutiny by Students’ Unions.
I can not stress enough the importance of this report, and encourage every student who finds themselves within the ‘free speech discourse’ to read it. Many of its findings are alarming, and our Students’ Union ought to take into account its findings when making decisions pertaining to freedom of expression.
It is important to remember that Liberate the Debate has worked, and will continue to work with our Students’ Union to ensure that freedom of expression is respected and upheld on our campus.
This is yet another attack on our freedom of expression at university. For those interested, I recommend reading our society statement which can be found on the Liberate the Debate Facebook group.