An Embarrassment For Free Speech

The occupation is a self-defeating and embarrassing strategy. Because, from experience, free speech is something you protect or you lose.

David Willetts has an opinion on what the “Idea of the University” is, but unfortunately he didn’t get a chance to share his view. Within seconds of bumbling up to the podium with all the menace of a reclusive accountant, Willetts was met with an angry mass counter-speech from Cambridge Defend Education.

It was a self-important and embarrassing strategy. It also didn’t help matters that the protestors’ speech was a bit shit. They felt a need to deliver every line twice, despite the acoustics being perfectly good enough for us to hear the first time. I got the sense they didn’t like Willetts – or a lot of other things – very much. I lost track about half way through when a metaphor about sour honey was used.

Embarrassing and self-important: the occupation is damaging, not productive 

The hijack was a self-defeating and disgraceful violation of free speech. It was the opposite of what any University should stand for – the free and rigorous exchange of ideas. Quite why Defend Education couldn’t have just engaged with the event is a point so obvious it’s almost not worth mentioning. The majority of the audience, judging by comments afterwards, were pretty interested in seeing whether Willetts could reconcile the idea of a University with £9,000 headline fees. They didn’t seem likely to be “lobotomised,” as the protestors insinuated.

This would be a pretty obvious article if I just left it at “free speech good – disruptive protesters bad.” The real question is: if some people won’t respect free speech in Cambridge, what should we do about it?

As Union President, I ran an event earlier in the year with Local Government Minister Eric Pickles. Luckily, we got a warning of trouble and had half a dozen security guards were on hand when 20 or so protesters broke into the building and tried to stop the event. The way we handled that came in for criticism. To read some accounts in TCS, our “out of control” security had callously tried to break a teenage girl’s arm while a gloating, Jabba-the-Hutt-esque Pickles expounded his vision to return Britain to a land of dark, satanic mills.

Hyperbole aside, we did have to throw people out forcibly. Free speech is important, but sometimes you wonder if it’s actually worth using force just so we can hear an MP repeat some old points. Personally I changed my mind after this term: it’s worth the risk of occasionally being heavy handed.

Because in the Cambridge context, free speech is something you protect or you lose. Every time a government minister gets a reception like this, it gets harder to convince others to come to Cambridge – there’s no shortage of alternative forums where they’ll actually get a chance to speak.

We’ve got to challenge those who abuse the right. The night before Willett’s speech, at CUSU council, members of Defend Education were asked if they had any plans to prevent free speech. They said no – they misled a hundred people. Student Representatives should make sure CUSU refuse to support CDE unless they can engage maturely and honestly, and show that our idea of a University is somewhere that favours free speech over mindless shouting.


The Tab want to know what YOU think. VOTE in our reader poll below:

  • not all like that…

    To show that not all of us behave like the protesters who interrupted Willetts – *regardless* of any views we may hold on university reform, sign this:

  • queer

    I'm shitting in the wind here, and this is going to get voted down, but as one of the occupiers (though somebody who was not present at the Willetts intervention and does not support it), I feel this piece is so, so wrong.


  • queer

    Does Calum suppose that rigorous debate would have persuaded Willetts to change his mind? That he would have gone away really thinking about the consequences of his actions, and prepared to make changes? It could happen, I suppose, but it's highly unlikely. His views have been heard and heard and heard, and the White Paper is going through. Debating with him is going to change precisely jack all. CONTINUED

    • Strange

      And I suppose that students are totally open to having their minds changed on £9000 fees?

  • queer

    __Secondly, it was disgraceful that he was invited here. The series on was 'My Idea of the University'. His idea is hardly little-known. It was never a debating platform anyway, three weeks before the bill passes, It was a chance for him to reiterate the same arguments, to convince more people. And that isn't stimulating intellectual debate, it's authoritative, autocratic lecturing.
    I accept that there was a Q&A at the end, and that people wanted to ask questions, and part of me thinks they should have been allowed to. But let's look at the attendance figures here. Without CDE there, the hall would have had maybe 30, 40 people in. What the hell is that going to do? How is that going to affect or change anything, or even produce a good standard of debate? People are apathetic and unbothered by a disgraceful White Paper and that is the real problem here. Free speech subverted by us because we're too lazy to do anything else than rate comments up and down on the Tab. The occupiers are taking a stand, they're bothering to say something, and in that they should be supported. There is much more to say, but I needn't. Just throwing it out there.

  • queer

    sorry about lots of small little comments there, it wouldn't let me post the whole thing

  • queer

    also, as you are well aware Calum, we did not lie in front of a hundred people. You were present at CUSU last week because I saw you there. Chris, our member on CUSU, did not lie. He was not aware of any action being planned as he was not present when we planned it. This is why he said no. And you heard him say that, Calum. You sat there, you heard him justify his actions, and you still wrote that we lied. Just leaving that fact there, Calum, and inserting the words 'pot', 'kettle' and 'black' in rapid succession. Good journalism is truthful. You are not being.

    • Erm

      So your defence is that you're so badly organised that your official representative didn't even know what you were doing? Yep, that'll increase your credibility.

      • queer

        he's not an 'official representative', he happens to be on CUSU. And I'm not offering a defence, simply pointing out that Calum has been untruthful in this article, for political reasons. That is inaccurate and weak journalism and he should apologise.

        • Anonymous Maximus

          What position does he hold on CUSU?

          From the sounds of it, he wasn't told, delibrately, so you could get away with lying (or 'equivocating', if you so prefer), under the clause of plausible deniability. So it just sounds like you screwed him over. Or you can't keep to your word. Or you can't keep any sort of meaningful control over what gets done under the name of CDE.

          So you either screwed him over. Or you went back on your word (proffered up by Chris). Or CDE is so fractured that any promises given on your behalf is meaningless. Or you just lied MORE when you said he didn't know and so it wasn't lying.

  • Arcadian

    If they'd delivered their bizarre poem AFTER he'd finished speaking, during the question time, well then it might have been quite effective.

    As it stands, the protesters have just make the Left look like everything Mr Willetts probably wishes it was – a bunch of spoilt twats who can't wait their turn.

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