Last week, we were contacted by a former student at Exeter University to tell us that the students’ union had contacted every student society, including the debating society, asking them to cancel any events they’d organised with external speakers. The letter was dated 27 January and the societies were asked to cancel their events from 28 January. If they wanted to rearrange any of these events, the letter said, they would be “required to re-submit” them for approval by the students’ union which was currently reviewing its Digital Events Protocol and External Speaker Policy. But these new policies weren’t yet in place and no date was given for when they would be. In effect, the students’ union had, at a stroke, no-platformed every single external speaker for the remainder of the term – and possibly next term, too, depending on how long it takes the union’s officials to put the new policies in place.
The reasons the union is doing this – and doing it in the middle of term, when it is guaranteed to cause maximum disruption – were not properly explained. Something about a new CEO having been appointed and “planning for a new direction” and because “existing digital event protocols are inadequate and expose our student leaders to significant risk”. But what sort of “risk”, given that all events are taking place online at the moment? The “risk” of hearing an argument that challenges your point of view? That sounds like sarcasm, but it may be the actual reason. The person who contacted us said they thought this “review” was prompted by complaints over the invitation of Claire Fox and Joanne Williams (both members of our Advisory Council) to speak at a debate in Exeter on 22 January.
Claire and Joanna proposed the motion ‘This house regrets the rise of the snowflake generation’ and, just before they spoke, the President of the debating society produced a list of “resources that you could turn to” if you were offended by the debate. On 25 January, the Exeter Socialist Students posted a statement online condemning the debating society for hosting Claire and Joanna, accusing them of being “transphobic”, and saying the students who run the society “do not adequately vet their speakers and appear unable to run their society safely”. The Socialists demanded that the students’ union disaffiliate the debating society.
We wrote to the Vice-Chancellor of Exeter and the President of the students’ union to try and find out why they’d condoned this outrageous assault on free speech and got a pretty dismissive reply. We then wrote a follow up letter, pointing out that the embargo that’s been placed on all events involving external speakers seems like a straightforward breach of the university’s legal duty to secure freedom of speech on campus.
This really is scandalous. Apart from everything else, the students at Exeter are already being short-changed, given how inadequate the university experience is under lockdown. Why has the Exeter students’ union, with the blessing of the Vice-Chancellor, suddenly decided to make it a whole lot worse by forcing student societies to cancel all their online events?
Stop Press: The Telegraph has written about the affair here.