Sussex student society Liberate The Debate have been told by the University of Sussex Student’s Union (USSU) that their guest speaker must submit his speech for vetting before the event is allowed to proceed.
UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge was invited by the society to give a talk on Libertarianism and Brexit, however, according to Vice-president Edward Seccombe, they ‘met significant resistance’ from the USSU.
Frida Gustafsson, President of Sussex University Students’ Union, said: ‘We welcome anybody to speak at Sussex, providing they are willing to participate in a balanced debate with students and we can ensure the event can safely and lawfully take place.
‘In this particular case, in line with our usual procedure and legal responsibilities, we requested that the student group hosting the event take some steps to ensure the safety of the speaker and attendees. These steps were all to ensure the event could safely go ahead.’
‘At no point were these restrictions intended to keep the event from happening – and, in truth, we were surprised to see the way the story came to be portrayed in various national media outlets.’
‘Our first Union Council of the year, the most powerful democratic decision-making body in the Union, is on Monday, and the Officer team will make sure to open up the floor to discuss the decisions recently made based on our External Speakers Policy.’
Following a risk assessment process, the Union decided that the event could only be allowed to go ahead if the society met a series of requirements as they deemed the speech as a medium to high risk.
Liberate The Debate, a society devoted to the promotion of free speech at Sussex, was told that they would have to submit a list of topics that will be discussed and an advance copy of the speech, as well as to ensure security guards were present if required by the university, and an opposition speaker to ‘balance’ the topic.
Peter Anson, who founded Liberate The Debate, told The Badger that while he would not describe the incident as no-platforming, ‘I think they should more seriously encourage debate…but I don’t see that when they restrict so much that the real argument can’t come out’, adding that he worries such behaviour is ‘damaging the integrity of an academic institution’.
‘There is a cultural issue with certain student groups that feel justified in using physical, possibly even violent methods to suppress speech. I think that’s a bigger problem that the Students’ Union should look at.’
Etheridge told The Telegraph: ‘I find it so ironic because all I want to do is discuss free speech.
‘I have spoken at other universities and had a rough ride from the students which is what I expect. But I’ve never before had a university make it impossible for me to attend.’
David Kurten, Ukip’s education spokesman, told the Daily Mail: ‘The list of obstacles put in the way of Bill Etheridge, an elected UKIP MEP, before he could make a speech to freedom of speech organisation of students at Sussex University was so prohibitive that it is quite obvious that he would have to abandon the meeting and go elsewhere.
‘His opinions may well cause rigorous debate on Brexit and other topics, but the suggestion that students’ safety is at risk from choosing to go and listen to an MEP is ridiculous.’