A university free speech society has been told its inaugural speaker must submit his speech for vetting – or cancel the event.
The Liberate the Debate society at the University of Sussex invited Ukip MEP Bill Etheridge to give a talk this term but their plans were disrupted by student union officials.
The union said his talk about Libertarianism and free speech was deemed ‘medium/high risk’ – and could be offensive to audience members.
They added that it would only be allowed to go ahead it complied with a series of measures ‘to ensure the safety of the speaker and of students’.
Mr Etheridge was asked to submit a list of topics that will be discussed, as well as an advance copy of the speech so it could be checked to see if it complied with the union’s ‘zero tolerance’ and ‘safe space’ policies.
Mr Etheridge said it would be ‘absolute hypocrisy’ to agree to the restrictions.
Mr Etheridge was asked to submit a list of topics that will be discussed, as well as an advance copy of the speech so it could be checked to see if it complied with the union’s ‘zero tolerance’ and ‘safe space’ policies
He told the Telegraph: ‘I find it so ironic because all I want to do is discuss free speech.
‘I have spoken at other universities and had a rough ride from the students which is what I expect. But I’ve never before had a university make it impossible for me to attend.’
Mr Etheridge briefly stood as a leadership candidate for the party and has been the MEP for the West Midlands since 2014.
Peter Anson, a second year Politics and International Relations student, said he founded Liberate the Debate society to promote free speech on campus.
He said: ‘There is an increasing student culture where they feel justified in using physical or violent methods to stop speakers.
‘This will ultimately hurt the academic integrity of the university. We want to highlight that it is healthy to engage in debate, rather than say their opinions can’t be expressed.’
Mr Anson said the restrictions imposed on the event, which had been scheduled to take place this Friday, are ‘patronising’, adding that the society is now looking to host the event at a venue outside of campus.
He said: ‘Many of the restrictions that were placed [on the event] were on the basis of protecting the speaker from a volatile student response.
‘This creates an image that the students’ union would rather appease students who wish to oppress differing political views with physical and possibly even violent methods.
‘Surely the student union should be more concerned that there is a culture where students feel that even those of centre right political view (in this case, Brexit and Libertarianism) should have their opinions repressed.’
David Kurten, Ukip’s education spokesman, said: ‘The list of obstacles put in the way of Bill Etheridge, an elected Ukip MEP, before he could make a speech to freedom of speech organisation of students at Sussex University was so prohibitive that it is quite obvious that he would have to abandon the meeting and go elsewhere.
‘His opinions may well cause rigorous debate on Brexit and other topics, but the suggestion that students’ safety is at risk from choosing to go and listen to an MEP is ridiculous.’
Frida Gustafsson, president of Sussex University Students’ Union, said: ‘We welcome anybody to speak at Sussex, providing they are willing to participate in a balanced debate with students and we can ensure the event can safely and lawfully take place.
‘In this particular case, in line with our usual procedure and legal responsibilities, we requested that the student group hosting the event take some steps to ensure the safety of the speaker and attendees. These steps were all to ensure the event could safely go ahead.’
Sussex University said they support the students’ union on this matter.