Vibrant intellectual exchange forms part of the joy of being human. Unfortunately, rigorous, intelligent debate that is receptive to controversy and disagreement is in increasingly short supply. Perversely, this is especially true on university campuses. That is, in a space in which debate should be most encouraged, limitations on controversial speech are becoming more common.
In October last year, I was scheduled to give a talk to the Catholic Society (or ‘CathSoc’) of University College London (UCL). The subject was to be the right of Catholics to have their own view on the contentious issue of homosexuality. I had prepared to explain what the Catholic teaching on homosexuality was, why the Church actually preaches and argues against homophobia, what the implications for this teaching are for Catholics in public life, and why civil liberties (such as freedoms of speech, religion and association) should be respected.
Ironically, given the subject matter, the talk was cancelled at the last minute by officials of the UCL Students’ Union (UCLU). While the official reason was that the requisite paperwork had not been completed, it soon became clear that the union’s sabbatical officers, alarmed and angered about the fact that the talk was taking place, had deployed any means necessary to have it stopped. This was no mere pedantic paper-pushing; it was censorship-by-bureaucracy.
UCLU’s external affairs and campaigns officer, Hannah Webb, on a thread about my talk on the UCLU LGBT society Facebook group, celebrated the fact that ‘[t]his was cancelled!’. After being asked how this was achieved, she answered, ‘Their speaker hadn’t been preapproved, so fairly easily’. In explaining this, she revealed that the event ‘was flagged up’ – that is, someone had complained about it – and consequently ‘several of us were alarmed that such a speaker had been allowed through the external speakers vetting process’. As a result, the union officials went out of their way to look into the event and when they found out the Catholic Society had not been given approval, they moved to stop the event altogether. As Beth Sutton, the UCLU’s women’s officer, boasted on Twitter: ’[W]e managed to stop it [the talk] because union protocol wasn’t followed.’
When I asked Webb on Twitter whether she’d have been so legalistic about any other event, she replied that she would for those events that are ‘on the boundaries of what UCLU allows and requires discussion’. Such a discriminatory attitude certainly puts to bed any last-minute cancellation fears for unconfirmed speakers at the UCLU baking society, or the badminton club, but something tells me the UCLU Friends of Palestine and assorted anti-war groups are probably similarly at ease.