No-Platforming Incident at Exeter University

We found out this morning that Caroline Farrow, a Catholic journalist and member of the Free Speech Union, has been no-platformed by the University of Exeter Debating Society. She was due to speak on 18th September in a debate on whether prostitution should be legalised, but she was notified at 11am today that she’d been disinvited because of her religious beliefs on a range of LGBT issues. This is a clear case of no-platforming and a breach of the University of Exeter’s professed commitment to free speech.

If the newly-installed Vice-Chancellor, Professor Lisa Roberts, doesn’t intervene to make sure the invitation is reinstated, it could also be a breach of the University’s legal duty to protect free speech, as set out in the Education (Nº 2) Act 1986, which was passed, in part, to prevent the no-platforming of visiting speakers at British universities. In particular, it would be a breach of s.43(a) of the 1986 Act, which requires universities to “take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers”. This Act and these words are referred to in Exeter’s “Freedom of Speech” policy.

The Free Speech Union has written to the Vice-Chancellor to complain about the censorious behaviour of the Debating Society and urged her to intervene. We await her response.

UPDATE: We sent our letter to the Vice-Chancellor at 4.30pm today, and received a response from the Vice-Chancellor’s Office at 9.22pm informing us that Caroline Farrow had been re-invited to speak at the debate tomorrow. We checked this with Caroline Farrow and, sure enough, she had received an email at 9pm from James Lindsay, the Interim Director of Membership Engagement at the University of Exeter Students’ Guild. It read:

I’m writing to you on behalf of the Debating Society at the University of Exeter Students’ Guild. I have been in touch with the society this evening and discussed the retraction of invite that was sent to you earlier today. I can confirm that this was sent in error and I apologise for any inconvenience caused.

Therefore, your invitation stands and we welcome your attendance at the debate tomorrow evening.

Well done to Professor Lisa Roberts for acting so quickly to ensure freedom of speech is upheld at Exeter and to the Chairman of the Debating Society for being willing to change his mind. We hope that no more speakers are no-platformed by British universities, but if they are this is exactly how university vice-chancellors and the officers in charge of student societies should respond when they’re made aware of how wrong it is to no-platform people, both morally and legally.

At the risk of repeating ourselves, if a group of students passionately disagree with the views of an invited speaker, they should welcome the opportunity to robustly challenge those views in the public square. If they can persuade others that they’re right they will advance their cause, whereas silencing their opponents will persuade no one who isn’t already convinced. It just makes it look as though they’re scared of being defeated in an open debate.

Letter-to-Exeter-University-Vice-Chancellor-1

Shortly after we sent our letter, the Vice-Chancellor’s office wrote to us as follows:

Dear Mr Young,

Thank you for your letter to Professor Roberts. We were unaware of this Students’ Guild Debating Society event and the decision both to invite Caroline Farrow and to rescind the invitation. We understand Caroline Farrow has been reinvited to the online debate.

Best wishes,

Victoria

Dr Victoria Alcock
Head of the Vice-Chancellor’s Office
University of Exeter