Controversial Debating Soc event cancelled by SU for violating ‘no platform’ policy

The Union said that “robust discussions” will now take place with DebSoc to understand why they violated the policy

Royal Holloway’s Debating Society has been forced to cancel a controversial guest speaker event after the Students’ Union said that it violated the Union’s “No Platform for Hate Speech” policy.

Former Labour MP Chris Williamson had been invited to speak at the Society’s weekly session, which was meant to take place at 6 pm this evening. Mr Williamson was suspended from the Labour Party in February 2019 after claiming the Party had been “too apologetic” in response to its handling of antisemitism allegations.

Mr Williamson unsuccessfully fought against his suspension in a High Court battle with the Party last October. He also issued a detailed apology (see below) but this appears to have done little to mollify those he offended, albeit, as he says, unintentionally.

The Union’s announcement comes after 12 societies, including Jewish Society, raised concerns about Mr Williamson’s suitability as a guest speaker at Royal Holloway over the weekend.

In a joint statement, the societies argued that the Debate Society’s invitation violated the Union’s no-platforming policy and urged the Union to “prevent the event from going ahead and to apply more care in future before allowing events such as these to proceed”.

In an open letter published this afternoon, the local Labour Party also said that it was “appalled” by the invitation extended to Mr Williamson. They agreed that it violated the Union’s platforming policy and urged the Society to “immediately rescind” the invitation.

Following the publication of the statement and the open letter, Debating Society President Vaanee Sarihyan revealed that she “firmly opposed” the event and threatened to resign if the debate went ahead.

“Having spoken to RHUL’s Jewish Society, as well as many other concerned individuals, I vehemently believe that Mr Williamson’s actions and rhetoric are unacceptable examples of severe antisemitism and have caused great harm to the Jewish community,” she wrote in an open letter published on Facebook.

“It is for this reason, therefore, that I will announce my resignation as President of the Society should the committee continue to advocate for his presence in a Debating Society event.”

The Students’ Union requires advanced notice for guest speaker events to ensure that they are compliant with its “No Platform for Hate Speech Policy“. The event was cancelled because no advanced notice was issued by the Debating Society.

The Students’ Union defines hate speech as: “An expression of hatred toward someone on account of that person’s colour, race, disability, nationality (including citizenship), ethnic or national origin, religious belief, sex, gender identity, or sexual orientation. The expression should be threatening or abusive, and is intended to harass, alarm, or distress another individual or community of individuals.”

This is not the first time Debating Society has been embroiled in controversy. The Union’s no-platforming policy was introduced last year after the Society tried to host Katie Hopkins. The Union cancelled that event citing “safety” concerns. The no-platforming policy was implemented after a student referendum.

Union President Kate Roberts commented today: “The No Platform for Hate Speech policy and associated processes were voted in last year by the student body to ensure the safety of all students and contribute to an inclusive campus community at Royal Holloway.

“We have a zero-tolerance approach to any form of hate speech at the Students’ Union and I am extremely disappointed in Debating Society for their actions and decisions that led to them circumventing the policy and advertising an unapproved guest speaker event.”

In response to the Union’s statement, Jewish Society President Neil Ilan Lavie-Driver wrote on Twitter that he was “proud to have contributed to the cancellation” of the event, but he is “disturbed” that the event was scheduled by Debating Society in the first place.

Cllr Robert Ashley King, chair of the local Labour Party told The Royal Holloway Tab: “The statement by the Students’ Union and President Roberts is welcome and sets a good tone going forward.

“Recognising that bigotry, hate speech, and attacking a person solely because of their particular characteristic is completely separate to free and pluralistic debate is the right tone and sets the precedence moving forward.

“A clearer message going forward however would be ruling out Mr Williamson from speaking at a future point at campus events. There is ample evidence he contravenes this policy and continues to hold and express antisemitic views. He should not be welcome on campus and he should not be welcome in any decent and upstanding political arena.”

Debating Society published a statement on their Facebook page this evening apologising for scheduling the event without permission from the Union and said that they were simply trying their best to promote free speech.

“We are aware that the Students’ Union have [sic] issued their own statement, and would as a society like to apologise to the Union for oversight with regard to risk assessment and the procedure to be followed regarding external speakers.

“Debating Society is under new management this year, and we are still getting to grips with the challenges of working that are presented as a result of COVID-19

“We would urge others to appreciate that we are ordinary students, trying to do our best for our society and the promotion of free speech, and would ask for consideration from the campus community on the impact the reaction has had on some members of our committee. Kindness goes a long way.”

Last year, Chris Williamson apologised for the remarks that resulted in his suspension. “I deeply regret, and apologise for, my recent choice of words when speaking about how the Labour Party has responded to the ongoing fight against anti-Semitism [sic] inside of our party. Our movement can never be “too apologetic” about racism within our ranks.

“I am therefore sorry for how I chose to express myself on this issue within our party. This is a fight that I want to be an ally in. In future, I will take it upon myself to be more considered in my remarks, and ensure they reflect the Labour Party’s unswerving and unfaltering commitment to anti-racism and the fight against anti-Semitism [sic],” Mr Williamson wrote on Twitter.

Chris Williamson has been contacted for comment regarding the cancellation of the event.