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.

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