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:

  • Legal Eagle

    Hear Hear. We should have pepper sprayed the louts.

    • UC Davis

      Really doesn't help we found..

  • He's

    right you know

  • Hello!

    Let the comments war begin.

  • Their Hypocrisy…

    would be laughable, if their cretinous and self-dramatizing behaviour wasn't a collective embarrassment for all Cambridge students. When they prevent someone expressing a view they disagree with, it's legitimate and peaceful protest, but when anyone tries to curb the excesses of their disruption (or more generously, their right to 'symbolic speech'), then it's 'fascism', 'police state', 'oppression'.

    Hard to see it as anything more profound than childish pranks, like egging the headmaster on muck up day

    • well

      I completely agree, so long as by 'they' you're only referring to the people who actually shouted Willetts down and not all of CDE many of whom do not condone what happened last night and are frankly embarrassed by such a fatuous, self-indulgent display (myself included).

  • impartial spectator

    I read the first line and wanted you to go fuck yourself

    • Impartial Commenter

      Funny, I read your comment and thought the same thing.

  • WeTheStudents

    free speech par excellence was exercised last night; students had been denied an official platform in the lecture series on "the idea of the university," but made sure their united voice was heard nonetheless. if their conviction and unanimity scared off Willets, it is testimony that he had come, not for debate and engagement, but for propaganda purposes. he was not threatened with rubber bullets, he was not kettled, he was not criminalised for his views. students have been. but they did not let it stop them expressing them. any objection to the students' action is an objection to true freedom of speech.

    • WeTheNormalStudents

      So because you didn't get an official platform in this lecture series you thought you'd deny other people it? That's pathetic and childish – lots of the speakers who had taken part are openly critical of the government – funnily enough though, they were invited because they were experts – not students who love the sound of their own voices. Also, Willetts doing a Q&A for 45 minutes does sound like engagement to me..

    • Sorry,

      You're a massive bellend.

    • Er, no

      Students have not (as far as I'm aware) been criminalised for their views. They've been criminalised for, well, being criminals. You know, like, smashing windows and dropping fire extinguishers off buildings.

    • Put simply…

      CDE can fuck off.

    • A student

      Don't you fucking call yourself "WeTheStudents".

  • I-Myself

    this might be uncomfortably pragmatic, but if CDE had spoken for, say, 2 minutes, rather than 15 without stopping perhaps they could have got their 'free speech' and not seemed like wankers to everyone and have driven Willetts away.

    by minute 5-and-a-half-ish when Willetts left there was no indication CDE were ever going to stop, so fair play to him really; I wouldn't have stuck around.

    • Guestimus Maximus

      To his credit, he stayed to the end of the speech, which is more than would have willed myself to endure.

      He only left when they occupied the stage, imposing a physical presence, and something, that under normal circumstances, be considered quite threatening.

  • Ironic…

    …how CDE are trying to align themselves with the Occupy movement, when 99% of people in Cambridge think they're all massive twats.

    • 1%er


      A lot of people think the Occupy movement are massive twats

  • JJ Bock

    Sorry Calum, but I don't agree with your point of view. For the following reasons:

    Freedom of speech as an abstract concept certainly does NOT mean the right to always "speak" in the literal sense (the physical act of generating socially relevant sounds with vocal cords at any given moment). Surely, it's about the fact that everyone's voice (not literally), standpoint, opinion, and argument should be enabled to feature in any given debate. It's about guaranteeing that points of view are represented widely and accessibly to actors and participants in social discourse.

    That has clearly happened with Willetts and government policy. His voice is not just heard, but becomes manifest in educational policy. So, yes, CDE might have annoyed some people last night, but it is rather stupid to accuse them of denying anyone the "right to free speech". Iin my understanding of the concept of free speech, Willetts's ideas, opinions, and arguments are well-represented and accessible to any member of society. So, I do not agree with those who claim he has been denied the right of free speech.

    Furthermore, Willetts' ideas and concepts form the dominant discourse of society – and have become social reality. The dominant discourse – the dominant ideas – of society strongly oppress other views and points of view. So, maybe what happened last night was rather an empowerment of freedom of speech- for those still excluded to an extent not experienced by Willetts, i.e., the students whose views have been smashed, suppressed, and silenced. The events last night have generated publicity for CDE and thus enabled their arguments to be disseminated more widely in society. If freedom of speech is not an end in itself, but a means to an end, and if the the end is to guarantee the widest possible dispersion of ideas, opinions, and views – this end was probably furthered last night: awareness was raised for CDE and their aims (notably among new Cambridge students who would not have been here during the occupation).

    It is unfortunate that CDE seems to have annoyed so many people – but this is certainly not about curtailing the freedom of speech of the government.

    • Have another go

      You are completely missing the point. There were plenty of people at that debate who were not Pro-Willetts. It was not a Willetts fanclub convention. The main point, as I understand it, was that there were plenty of people there who actually wanted to argue against his policies and understand them more, as well as for him to understand their objections. Thus it was these people who were denied their right to freedom of speech by the fools who decided that monotonous and dogmatic chanting was the way forward.

      As for your point that awareness has been raised for CDE, this only adds to your misunderstanding. Now, people who want a genuine debate against Willetts's policies are tarred with the CDE brush. I'm not saying their right to free speech has been denied by this alone, but it certainly makes it a lot harder for people to express contrary views without being cast as a furious, malevolent bastard.

    • Calum

      Sorry Jan, I disagree with yours:
      Free speech isn't just an abstract concept – it's a concrete right that we all have. To speak – even if people don't listen. Just because a view is "dominant" doesn't mean you can unilaterally decide to silence someone – that's simply arrogant.

      I'm not really that bothered if they want to occupy somewhere to highlight their cause (although a constantly used main lecture hall is a pretty stupid choice) – because if done right it doesn't really interfere with anyone's personal rights. There was no justification for last night though.

  • Massive Liberal

    This is an interesting argument, but I think it is mistaken. Free speech, let us assume, is all well and good. What free speech require of us is actually pretty unclear. Does it mean that you must be allowed to speak whenever and wherever you like? Must I allow you into my house to speak when you so wish? Must I let you keep me awake by speaking? Probably not. Free speech, I think, does not require of us that we provide a platform to the speaker. It does not require that we bring her an audience. It does not require that we sit quietly and listen, or even that we give the speaker our intention. The right to free speech is a negative right; it is a protection from something, not a right too something. It is a protection from having your expressions criminalised. It is an protection from being punished for expressing your opinion. David Willetts was free to speak. No one would have arrested him had he done so, nor would he have been subjected to violence. The fact that he would not have been heard is not a concern of free speech, for we are not obliged by free speech to listen.

    There are perhaps other grounds that Mr. Macdonald could use to criticise CDE, but it is a mistake to do so on the grounds that they violated free speech.

    Also, I will leave it to the reader to think who's right to free speech has been violated. Which people have been arrested for peaceful protest? Which people subjected to violence for speaking out? But, I suggest, it probably isn't David Willetts.

    • You are a bell-end

      David Willetts was not free to speak – he had a baying mob of tw*ts shouting sh*t poetry at him, and, in their own words, "bundling" him off the stage.

      At least from within your kettles people could see your banners broadcast on national TV and hear your shouts – you've had plenty of chance to speak, the point you're missing is that no-one wants to listen to you. Get over it and go home.

      • Hello Dave

        Thank you for pointing this out. Here's a link to what was said yesterday by a number of people in unison:

        Such gems as "Go Home, David" or the hanging subordinate clause "Because nothing is up for debate here." sort of give the game away. This was about "shutting down" (CDE blog & facebook) Willetts' speech, which was intended as the opening of a Q&A session.

        The speech is raging student invective aimed directly at one person, with the purpose of fostering an atmosphere threatening enough to make him leave. Freedom of expression requires us to create a different atmosphere: one in which measured debate can be had, not where ministers are afraid to speak at our University for fear of this sort of counterproductive experience. Our requirement to support the atmosphere which characterises this University is not the same as a responsibility to give platform; simply that we do not act to deny it.

        To CDE: the institution you seek to protect embodies the values which you yesterday violated. This debate should not be about the mudslinging tit-for-tat attitude which sadly typifies student politics as well as the arguments of children. If you want to be engaged, engage. If you want to be heard, recognise that there are legitimate channels for voicing your dissent, and -moreover – that dissent alone has never been criminalised, but some acts to which it has led have unfortunately been criminal. Please stop conflating the two.

        You claim to be the unheard voice in the Universities debate, but far more silent is the voice of the reasonable majority of students. We are ready to engage in debate, whatever we think about the cuts, and we think that to "shut down" the talk of a man who is one of the Conservatives' most academically accomplished ministers smacks of pigheaded arrogance.

        • Dave

          You’re welcome. Also, CDE keep saying that there would have been no point having the debate, because he’s already made up his mind. If that’s the case, what is the point in you doing anything? Fact is, people still want to hear his responses to their questions, even if it theoretically wouldn’t change anything. Just like we want to question your actions, even though it’s unlikely to stop you behaving like dicks…

  • embarrassed

    CDE are a bunch of tossers

  • A really punny guy

    Watchoo talkin' about Willetts?

  • Dom W

    This is a good opinion piece that I largely agree with, but I think it's also worth framing the debate not just in terms of the "abstract concept" of freedom of speech, but also of engagement with the political process.

    Last night, a brilliant thing was scheduled to happen. A Cabinet Minister, one of the twenty three most senior members of the British Government came to explain his plans for the future of a University to a group of students and academics, and face a 45 minute public grilling from people asking intelligent, reasonable questions about the future of higher education policy in the UK. Having this opportunity is important since it allows all those with a sufficient interest to learn more, ask questions, criticise, engage. Such events happen frequently up and down the country and the fact that an individual can hold a senior cabinet minister to account (whether or not they like the decision they've come to), is an incredible part of British democracy.

    Unfortunately, what actually happened last night fell far short because of the childish actions of a small collection of individuals. Rather than let the minister speak and hear what he has to say, or ask really difficult, thought through, specific questions to highlight the problems in his argument, they simply decided to shout the man down, chant and take the stage until he left.

    What in God's name gave them the right to disrupt an event that would allow others with opinions (different or similar) to their own (as well as they themselves) to engage with the minister in a meaningful way? What arrogance to assume that their grievance was important enough to stop such a potentially useful event to allow individuals to engage with the political process. Do such groups not realise that their actions last night actually make it more difficult for students, academics and individuals with concerns about any government policy to engage with senior politicians and the political process?

    Last night a group of noisy individuals, fond of strange metaphors about honey, decided that they had the right to call off an event because they were prepared to shout loudly, be rude and sleep in a lecture theatre. Their actions do in fact make it more difficult for any individual to have a meaningful interaction with the political process and they ought to explain why they believe their actions were justified to all those affected. After that, perhaps they should look at better, more grown up ways of interacting with the political process to ensure they don't impinge on other people expressing their opinion.

  • Let's be clear…

    This has nothing to do with freedom of expression (or 'free speech'). It is not an absolute right: I have no obligation to allow someone to come onto my private property and express their views to me. What the CDE people were effectively protesting against was Cambridge University's decision to provide a platform for Willetts to express his views. They were not curtailing Willetts' freedom of expression but rather his ability to use Cambridge University as a platform from which to exercise his freedom of expression.

    Having said all of that, I agree that the CDE are a bunch of self-important tossers, which is unfortunate as it makes it unlikely that any of their actions can be taken seriously.

  • TPJ

    I'm a fan of free speech so I can tell everyone about U21s.

  • Boba Fett loves TCS

    "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"

    Judge for yourself here…

    • NotEvenaTabEditor

      TCS is shite.

  • just a thought

    Why is the poll question 'Do you support the actions of CDE?'
    I vehemently opposed the decision to disrupt Willetts, but I do support the occupation. Am I contradicting myself? I don't think so.
    For the record, most occupiers share this same position. If you don't believe me you're welcome to go there and find out for yourselves.

    • TPJ

      Wish I could but I'v got U21s training

  • Terrance

    In the interests of free speech I would like to invite you to the café tomorrow afternoon at 3pm to engage in the discussion of trends. I hope to stimulate vigorous but cordial discussion

  • LongTimeTabAddict

    please may i driect you to previous comments by Callum Wood documented by the Tab? in the past they have been accused of being homophobic and racist, which strikes me as an important thing to remind those people who allign themselves with him.

    • uhhh

      uh, this is calum macdonald

  • Callum'sBiggestFan

    I'm so pleased Callum Wood is standing in the fine Tory tradition to which he belongs – having spoken to the tab on the disgusting homosexual issue and stated that he does not "subscribe to the notion of rights," it's great to see he's aware that that Tory line only applies to the rights of those we don't like, not our own. Good lad! The Daves are proud and I'm not surprised he's getting such support for his stance.

  • 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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