The Guild…not looking out for our best interests?

Christopher Lodge ‘lodges’ his complaints against ‘the contentious speakers policy.’



Like most Exeter students I have heard many complaints about our student Guild, some fair and others not. My main criticism was always that the Guild didn’t give students enough of a say in the decisions that affect us all. Happily this criticism has recently been addressed, as in an effort to give us all a say in the running of the Guild a new section has been added to the Guild website allowing students to vote in referendums. However my pleasant surprise that the Guild had included students in its decision making turned rather quickly to outrage. The reason is one of the first referenda to be put up on the Guild website, the ‘contentious speakers policy’.
This policy is a proposed change to Guild rules on external speakers which would mean that an individual student could complain that a speaker on campus was offensive to their identity and have the speaker suspended, pending various Guild tribunals and panels. These tribunals, according to the policy itself, could take up to a month. The problem with this misguided policy is that despite its good intentions it would massively restrict free speech and damage the diversity of views on campus.
In an effort to get people to vote against this policy I started a Facebook group which grew to around 1300 members in a little over 24 hours. I’m hoping I can persuade you to vote against the ‘contentious speakers policy’ too.
So why am I, and many others, so opposed to this policy? Opponents have tried to claim we are overreacting to a policy designed to keep students safe on campus and allow their voices to be heard. Indeed if the policy was actually attempting to achieve this in any reasonable way I wouldn’t be writing this article. My first objection to this policy is that fact that the Guild have offered no consultation period on sensible amendments and rushed it to a referendum which will be closing this Friday at 4pm.
It’s great that the Guild responded to criticism from Jewish society to a talk by Gilad Atzmon last term, but when drafting the ‘contentious speakers policy’ the Guild didn’t consult the rest of the student body.
Here lies the major issue with this policy as it stands, it was created to protect us from offensive speakers but without any of us having a say in its wording. Arguably our sabbatical officers had an input into the wording of this policy and as such contributed our opinions, something we have to trust them to do.
But in fact as Guild rules currently stand it is the Sabb team themselves who are responsible for vetting speakers on campus. Why then if we trust them to draft a policy about contentious speakers, can’t we just trust them to just vet speakers themselves as they already do. Why on earth then do we need this policy to expand the Guild bureaucracy even further and put freedom of expression at risk?
Well it certainly isn’t to keep students safe in a physical sense as the policy keeps trying to imply, the law already provides for this and groups like the BNP are not allowed to speak on campus for this reason. In fact the policy is placing a student’s “dignity or the recognition of their self-worth” (put more bluntly; feelings) above the right of all groups on campus to invite guests they wish to host, regardless of whether others might find that person ‘offensive’.
Now it’s worth stating that I am not for a moment saying I don’t feel that it is very important that all students here at Exeter University feel welcome and respected, I want everyone to feel comfortable here. However as a respected University we have to get our priorities right. At the core of our academic community are differences in opinion, indeed differing views are a vital part of life; and that means from time to time you will be offended by the views of others. Banning speakers to avoid upsetting various groups on campus is completely against even the most basic notion of freedom of speech.
If anyone objects to a speakers presence on campus then don’t go to the event, or better still protest the event and the speaker (as Jewish society did at Mr. Atzmon’s talk); it is your right to do so. But it isn’t your right to dictate to other groups on campus who they can invite to speak as this policy suggests.
Regardless it’s simply not true that this policy would protect students’ identities in the first place. Speakers coming to talk to a minority group on campus could be blocked on the grounds of offense and thereby the minority group’s voice and presence on campus immediately diminished. Ironically the exact opposite of what the ‘contentious speakers policy’ is meant to be addressing. Take for example if a religious group on campus moved to get the openly gay M.P. for Exeter Ben Bradshaw excluded on the grounds that his openness about his sexuality is offensive to their ‘religious identity’, one of the many categories the Guild outline as legitimate grounds for complaint. In this case it wouldn’t matter if Mr. Bradshaw was cleared to speak on campus eventually (as I’m sure he would be), an open attack would already have been launched on the gay community on campus, which is vastly different to offensive comments made in private to an audience who invited the speaker.
The ‘contentious speakers policy’ in its current form will not only restrict freedom of speech to an unreasonable degree and inflate the Guild bureaucracy even further but will also undermine its own aims to protect vulnerable people and groups on campus. So show the Guild that in future you want to be consulted before having to actually vote on an issue. Show the yes campaign that you want to protect the diversity of views and opinion on campus. Show that you aren’t scared of getting your feeling hurt in the course of a debate and are willing to defend your ideals. Head on over to the ‘have your say’ section of the Guild website and vote against the ‘contentious speakers policy’.