Universities UK, an umbrella body for British universities, has released a report (full PDF here) examining what can and should be done about extremist/radical speakers who are invited to speak by university societies. The report recommends a number of actions:
* Review current protocols/policies on speaker meetings. The report highlights examples of checklist-forms being used when dealing with speaker invitations.
* Identify an appropriate senior person to lead on issues of campus security.
* Ensure that all involved in making decisions in relation to campus security, academic freedom, free speech and equality rights are familiar with the legal requirements operating in this area.
* Work with the students’ union to provide clear information to students and student societies about the rights and responsibilities of the institution, the students’ union, student societies and students in relation to academic freedom, free speech and equality rights.
* Develop and maintain a mechanism for regular dialogue with relevant external organisations such as the police, local authorities and community groups.
The report has already drawn criticism from some quarters, who feel that it does not do enough to prevent societies from inviting hate speakers. In many ways, this is understandable. The checklist system seems simplistic (“have you ever compared Jews to cockroaches?” and so on), and given the sort of unpleasant individuals who have been invited to speak at universities in the past, it is clear why it is a good idea not to invite people like that in the future. Since universities fund societies and provide facilities fro them, it is right they should have a say in the matter. A Muslim campaigner who challenges extremist speakers argues that the report fails to address the difficulty in challenging such speakers:
“I totally agree that freedom of speech includes freedom of speech for awful people, but in Birmingham no institution exists to address these people. If the Islamic society hosts an extremist preacher, all the effort to make people understand what’s going on comes from outside the university. When there’s a radical speaker, usually the Jewish society flags it up if it happens to be anti-semitic.”
Yet the problem the universities face is establishing such a system to screen radical speakers. It is very difficult to devise a set of rules that could adequately screen all potential speakers; there are hundreds at each university alone. If every potential speaker had to be vetted by university staff, then the process could take months, and would be very costly. Some may argue that this is a price worth paying, but how would the screening process work? Would they have to dig into a person’s past and in many cases translate from other languages? The universities could just focus on the more obvious hate speakers, but in that case how would a set of rules be devised? Societies that invite radical speakers could be punished with a loss of funds/facilities, but once again there would have to be a competent and clear system in place.
What of freedom of speech? This is a slightly misleading question, as stopping someone from giving a talk doesn’t amount to stopping them speaking their mind, but merely denies them a platform. But does that help or hinder the battle against extremism and hatred? Unpleasant ideas are normally allowed to fester until someone exposes them. Defeating a hate speaker in debate is likely to do more for moderate voices then banning ever would, though inviting such an individual risks radicalising some of the listeners, especially if it is the context of a talk rather than a debate.
Should universities stop their societies inviting extremist speakers? Probably, though there is a strong counter-argument for inviting such individuals in terms of having a debate with them in order to expose and discredit their ideas. How can they ensure no extremist speakers give talks? I don’t know.
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Filed in: Civil liberties,Current affairs,Terrorism