Last month, the University of Nottingham’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) society invited a representative from the US-based Westboro Baptist church for an online ‘Q&A’ session. Within days, after sustained student backlash, the society decided to cancel the event.
On the 28th of September, UoN’s PPE society announced on their members only Facebook page that they had lined up their “first potential major guest speaker for the year”. The announcement detailed their plan to invite the Westboro Baptist Church to a ‘Q&A session’.
The Westboro Baptist Church are an extremist, American religious cult
The post explained that the invitation was sent on grounds of curiosity. The organisers were interested in the philosophical ideas surrounding political intolerance and hypocrisy, in particular Karl Popper’s famous ‘Paradox of Tolerance’.
The Westboro Baptist Church are an extremist, American religious cult, notorious for their inflammatory hate speech against LGBT+ people, atheists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, American soldiers and politicians.
Although they had already featured in a number of documentaries, the Church became particularly well known in the UK after the BBC’s Louis Theroux made them the subject of his documentary, The Most Hated Family in America, in 2007.
Theroux also made two follow-up documentaries on the group in 2011 and 2019 which exposed the Church’s slow demise as a number of prominent members made the decision to leave.
Notably, the society’s original announcement post received little to no engagement and the student body as a whole seemed unaware of the planned event.
Then, nearly a month later, on the 20th October, the PPE society posted again on their Facebook page announcing that the event was set to go ahead. The society confirmed that the discussion was to take place on the concept of “Freedom – Political, Philosophical and Economic”. This time, however, word got out to students and tempers flared.
Within hours of the post, a petition had been created: ‘Stop the Westboro Baptist Church from speaking at Uni of Nottingham’.
“I have never felt unsafe at uni due to my identity before”, the creator of the petition, Izzy Cole, commented alongside the petition, “but now I feel as though I should re-evaluate.” The petition spread quickly and reached over one thousand signatures in under a week.
Student lead media also got hold of the story, sharing in particular a short twitter thread featuring a handful of students and alumni expressing their disappointment at both the University and the PPE society. Local tabloid paper, the Nottingham Post, even picked up the story and reported a number of overwhelmingly negative reactions from students.
Over on the Facebook page ‘The Nottsfessional’, an anonymous Nottingham student forum, one post called the University a “JOKE” and complained that it was only because “some privileged individuals” thought it was “okay to discuss whether or not someone judging another individual based on WHO they are” that the event was able to be organised on grounds of a discussion about freedom.
The comments below the post, however showed a more varied set of views amongst the student body. “You do realise pushing hate groups underground will only make their views fester and go undetected?”, one commentor retorted.
“The whole point of a debate is to expose their ideas and use reason and logic to expose their logical flaws and humiliate them to delegitimise their belief publicly”, they added.
Then, on the 24th October, just four days after their second Facebook post, the PPE society committee announced their cancellation of the event. The society commented that they stood by their intentions regarding the event but that “student well-being comes first, and since the event compromises this, we cannot rationally go ahead with it”.
Two days later, UoN Students’ Union’s LGBT+ Officer, Samuel Boath, wrote a letter to University Vice Chancellor, Professor Shearer West, and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for equality, inclusion and diversity, Professor Sarah Sharples.
In the letter, Samuel outlined his relief that the event had been cancelled but that he felt “disappointed and deplorable” in light of the University’s decision to allow the organisation of the event.
“While I understand the aim of [sic] PPE society in debating for education purposes. [sic] I also understand the concept of ‘free speech’ but there is a point where it becomes ‘hate speech, which evidently Westboro Baptist Church express freely and openly about”, he explained.
A number of days later, Professor Sarah Sharples replied, saying that herself and Professor West were “truly sorry for the upset and distress this has caused both you personally, and in your role representing members of our University community.”
The cancellation was received well by some on social media
Professor Sharples also wrote that she agreed with Samuel that there is “no notion of ‘respectful debate’ in the manner in which the Westboro Baptist Church express their views”, and finished the letter outlining ways in which the University will review the system they use to approve student events.
The cancellation was received well by some on social media. Denis Lelin, this year’s UoN SU Activities Officer, remarked that the cancellation was “a really wise decision” and that he was “happy” the society reached the outcome they did.
Others, however, were not so happy: “This cancellation is a huge shame… Nobody has been protected by this cancellation, an educational opportunity has been lost”, one student posted on The Nottsfessional.
This comes as a survey in 2016 found 63% of university students are in favour of the National Union of Students (NUS) having a “no platforming” policy and more than 9 in 10 UK universities are now restricting free speech on campus.
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