Should we allow controversial speakers on campus?

“In the fight against extremism and the spread of misinformation, we need more voices, not less.”

 Hearing the word ‘student’ inevitably gives rise to some well-established stereotypes. These range, of course, from the old standards – the troublemakers, the militant-politicos, the overachievers – all the way to the fledgling breed of privately educated ‘rahs’ and North London Princesses. But what many may not appreciate, or indeed acknowledge, is that students in this country enjoy a privileged position relative to the residual population (hint: it’s not that they don’t pay income tax.)

In spite of the constraints of their course and the pressure to attain the proverbial 2:1, British students are in a fundamental sense freer than the rest of us. For at present, universities operate outside of those regulations which modulate most external debate. But with an abundance of freedom comes the potential for misuse. And when faced with the presence of extremist or radical speakers on our campus, we are faced with a dilemma. Should we respect their rights to freedom of expression, or should they be censored?

The Nottingham University Secular Society has campaigned against religious groups on campus for their unsavoury choice of speakers and scabrous publications. I asked President Geraint Thomas if he believed religious groups would exploit the university’s policy of tolerance, and even use it to defer criticism against them. “Yes, there is a danger of that” he says, “particularly those with social and political agendas to push, like the CU [Christian Union]. And I believe any trend in that direction should be fought to the nail.”

In recent years, critics have focused their attentions upon university Islamic Societies, noting their particularly poor track record for radical speakers. In 2008, the “Centre for Social Cohesion” released a comprehensive study on radical Islam on UK campuses. The document was immediately marred by controversy. Representatives decried it as a tendentious work intended to pathologise the Muslim community. Granted, the study did not mince words, pronouncing that “students […] active in their university Islamic society were twice as likely as non-members to hold extreme views”, and that Islamic societies had become breeding cultures for radicalism.


Within the CSC’s list of extremist speakers who have addressed audiences on British campuses, London universities came out worse, amassing twelve separate incidents of radical Islamic speakers at UCL alone. Nottingham came out better by comparison with only one notable incident occurring in the past decade:

In 2003, Al-Qaeda recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki served as a “distinguished guest” for the Federation of Student Islamic Societies’ annual conference. Other dignitaries included Azzam Tamimi – a known exponent of terroristic martyrdom – and Ismail Patel, chairman and co-founder of the ‘IslamExpo’. Patel’s bizarrely-titled event has been described by some as facilitating the legitimisation of radical Islam by providing a platform for both moderate and radical speakers.

But are Nottingham and other universities doing the same? Or are we, in the words of Macmillan, the “last bastions” of free expression?

An incident surrounding the Nottingham Christian Union, however, demonstrates that societies cannot always control what speakers say on their behalf. During the lecture series held last semester, the CU invited Leeds University Professor Andrew McIntosh to speak on the subject of science and religion. It suffices to say the salient points of Prof. McIntosh’s speech would bear little resemblance an anthropologist’s textbook; claiming that the earth has existed no more than 6,000 years, that human beings and dinosaurs co-existed peacefully, and that millennial-aged fossils can be explained away by the intense pressure exerted by the Biblical Flood.

I spoke to the former CU committee member who chaired that discussion, Peter Grier. He told me that the CU had no consensus on creation, adding that, two weeks following the incident, a speaker who was an “open advocate of Darwin’s theory” was invited to chair a meeting in the Physics Building. Grier and his colleagues were so embarrassed by McIntosh, in fact, that a representative felt obliged to add a postscript to the event distancing the organisation from the opinions expressed.

But to call this a textbook bait-and-switch scheme is a hard sell. In 2009, Impact investigated the CU’s roster of speakers only to discover they had played host to an array of glad-handed creationists and woman-haters. When given this sort of historical perspective, the Students Union’s reputation for blind impartiality starts to fall apart.

Interestingly, however, both the society representatives I spoke to didn’t object to inviting speakers who hold controversial beliefs on principle, only that they should not be permitted to digress onto certain contentious topics. When questioned about the appropriateness of having a creationist like Prof. McIntosh speak at an academic institution, Geraint from SecularSoc conceded that he doesn’t expressly object to the presence of people like McIntosh; he just believes that they shouldn’t be allowed to talk about creation (or whatever pseudoscientific field they “specialise” in).

Perhaps, in the wake of this, the particular mode of free speech permitted within an academic institution should be more concentrated, providing scope only for ideas which adhere to the conventions of the academic process. Geraint adds dryly, “Someone needs to explain to them how science works.”

But this response is only applicable when speakers are voicing ideas that are intellectually subversive, not morally or ethically so. The question of racist and radical speakers cannot be dismissed as blithely.

Still, I feel that cavalier censorship isn’t the answer. Part of me can’t shake the conviction that, no matter how scurrilous the argument, it should have a right to be expressed. Across the threshold of faith and disbelief, I found in people a shared agreement that freedom of speech ought to prevail in most, if not all, circumstances. There will always be opportunists but that should not dissuade us.

Many believe it’s possible to set a standard of acceptability without compromising our privileged status. This is an unnecessary recourse. Intellectual freedom is ranked among the Enlightenment values because it facilitates the enterprise of human reason. In this same spirit, to conquer radicalism and extremism, what we need is more voices, not less.

Izzy Scrimshire

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