Sunday, 3 April 2011

The Day Freedom of Speech on Campus Died

by Friends of Palestine Society

On Tuesday 15th March, I spent nearly six interminable hours sitting through Guild Council. The session was cut short as we were about to be thrown out of the building, so I didn't get to say any of what I came to say, but I'm glad I went, as I feel it's incumbent on me to inform Birmingham Students of what Guild Council has done.

Just before midnight, it passed a motion called "It Doesn't Matter If You're Black Or White" (IDMIYBOW) dealing with racist, sexist or homophobic speech on campus. Now down to it's title it seems to be designed to be impossible to argue with but the underneath the flowery words lie some really troubling implications.

The motion states that "racism, sexism and homophobia in all and any forms is totally unacceptable on campus" and goes on to mandate that any student group hosting a speaker who makes remarks that are racist, sexist or homophobic should be subject to investigatory proceedings by the Guild if a complaint is received. This would explicitally include cases where the group in question had followed all the Guild's procedures in vetting and having the speaker approved by both the Guild and the University, and the speaker had no history of such speech. I will publish the motion as a separate note so people can examine it for themselves. For those who don't know, the Guild's investigatory procedure involves the group in question appearing before Student Groups Comittee who can impose sanctions up to and including derecognition as a Guild affiliated society. This is a radical tightening of the Guild's current policy, which is that the responsibility for outside speakers lies with the Guild and the University, who vet them in line with the "no platform policy" rather than the individual group.

Now no one wants students to face hate speech on campus, but let's think about this carefully. Suppose your views on immigration and multiculturalism lean to the right. They may fall well within the mainstream, but there are those who would consider that racist. Does that fall within what the Guild now declares to be "totally unacceptable?" What about a speaker with conservative views on gender rolls. Sexist? Possibly. Should they be affectively barred from speaking on campus, though? What about the many Guild affiliated religious societies with views on sexual morality that are orthodox within, at least, the three Abrahamic religions. It doesn't take any kind of stretch of the imagination to envisage a situation in which remarks were made that would be considered homophobic by a significant number of people. Should those with such views be excluded from participation in Guild recognised activities? Consider also that casual prejudice is, unfortunately, not uncommon and perhaps better tackled with dialogue than by hitting people with the ban stick. Except in one, small instance, that I shall say a little more about in a minute, what speech falls under the remit of this motion is not well defined. I think the Guild should be extremely cautious about declaring certain views beyond the pale, even for discussion. The University, after all is a seat of academic debate, and should include space for discussion of ideas that some may find difficult or challenging. We didn't come here not to have our minds changed or broadened. Members of debating society stood up during the debate to say that their societies activities could not continue in there current form with this motion in place.

My only word of comfort to the many who have reason to feel threatened by this motion, is that this isn't really about you. To understand the motion you have to know a little about the history behind it. This January, University of Birmingham Friends of Palestine Society, of which I'm a member, hosted former US soldier, turned prominent antiwar activist, Mike Prysner. It's a very interesting and important perspective on the actions of western governments in Iraq and the wider Middle East.

He also likened Gaza to a concentration camp and the actions off Israel to those of the Nazis. Now this is cheap and below the belt and doesn't really add any understanding to the situation there. We clarified ( that this did not reflect our views when the Guild received complaints. However, few would consider it racist, and it certainly doesn't invalidate the rest of his talk. However according to a controversial definition ( of antisemitism, endorsed by the Guild, in a motion, last year, any comparison between the actions of Israel and the Nazis is antisemitic. I will not dwell on why this definition, called the "EUMC working definition" is so problematic- I have already written about it at length here: - suffice to say it is wide ranging and highly contentious. It was never formally adopted by the body that produced it but was allowed to fall by the way side, when it became apparent that it was not useful for it's stated purpose of identifying and monitoring antisemitism. I am not aware of any cases of it being used against uncontrovertible instances of antisemitism such as that by the far right and classical religious antisemitism as these things are too clear to need an official document to label them antisemitic.

Where it has come into unofficial use it's main purpose seems to be to police the boundaries of discussion on Israel/Palestine. It was accepted by the NUS after significant lobbying. The earlier motion only passed through Guild Council after being watered down to reduce it's roll to a guidline rather than legislation. It was also only applicable to the Guild itself, when assesing outside speakers, rather than student groups.

Nevertheless, with a large campaign led by Joseph Moses- Guild Anti Racism and Fascism Officer, author of both the EUMC and IDMIYBOW motions and a long time vociferous defender of Israel on campus- encouraging complaints to the Guild about the Mike Prysner talk, most from those not even in attendence, FoP had to appear before Student Groups Comittee. This was only the latest event in a long standing conflict between FoP and a subset of Jewish students who take exception to any serious critical treatment of the State of Israel or it's actions. FoP was required to make a clearer apology on their website, and were censured for inadequacies in chairing the talk (although this part of the judgment was reversed on appeal, and one of the Comittee found to have had an undisclosed conflict of interest). Beyond this they were found to have been in compliance with Guild regulations in inviting or hosting the speaker. Moses and others were extremely unhappy with this result. He was determined to close the loophole that allowed the small matter of having acted reasonably throughout allow the society to escape serious sanctions and came back to have the EUMC definition, that had been watered down the year before, tightened again,this time making it even more strict than the original unamended EUMC motion. He had already published a post on his official Guild blog, calling for such events to be "stamped out." ( It's authors obviously felt that Guild Council was unlikely to accept this if it were presented to them upfront so this portion was packaged in a larger motion, seemingly made up of motherhood and apple pie. It was then that IDMIYBOW was put forward.

The blog post also contained untrue statements about the motivation of FoP in hosting the event, which occured on the same day the ARAFO organised holocaust memorial was held the day before Holocaust Memorial Day. Moses believed that this was a deliberate slight against Jewish students. In fact the organisers had been unaware of the clash when they booked Mike Prysner to speak. Simon Furse tried to have Moses censured for these statements during Guild Council, during which I had access to my laptop, and was able to bring up a hotmail notification of a message posted by the President of FoP, dated 1:26am on 16th January. It reads:
"Just realised Mike Prysnor coincides with the Holocaust Memorial commemoration which is also at 3pm on Wed 26th.
So I'm trying to change the booking to 1pm instead of 3pm"
I was prevented from officially putting this to Guild Council, and Joseph Moses was loudly applauded when reiterating his claims. This was the first time that I felt actual physical anger at Guild Council. New Guild Councillors and Residence Association representatives must have been left the impression that Mike Prysner had said something truely beyond the pale.

The whole Guild Council session was a procedural abomination. An earlier motion reinstating the Guild's "No Policy, Policy" of enforced neutrality on Israel/Palestine had been passed with no opportunity given for opposing speeches when a motion was carried to proceed straight to a vote after only an impassioned speech by it's proposer on the necessity of the motion and some discussion of amendments. Further amendments of this motion and IDMIYBOW were blocked by the chair of Guild Council seemingly arbitrarily, including one removing the contentious EUMC definition. This was on the grounds that it would substantially alter the motion. Whilst I agree that this clause was the heart of what the motion was, in actuality, intended to achieve, it made up only a small part of the stated purpose of the overall motion. IDMIYBOW was passed late at night when many Guild Councillors had already left, most of those remaining were desperate to get home and the debate had to be curtailed to one round of speeches and brief questions as the building was about to close.

It is a travesty that a motion so cutting away at student groups rights to freedom of expression was passed under such circumstances to further a personal dispute between two groups on campus. If I was any other student at this University I wouldn't feel that Mike Prysner calling Gaza a concentration camp was heinous enough to warrant such drastic restrictions on my rights. IDMIYBOW notes:
That there is currently no policy in place to deal with racism, sexism or
homophobia on our campus unless the person or group in question is covered
under the No Platform Policy
but fails to demonstrate that these mechanisms were inadequate to deal with hate speech on campus. It also relies on an unstated asssumption that students have the absolute right to be protected from offence, I would disagree with that assumption and would dispute even more strongly that a small group on campus has the right to restrict student activities to prevent them from hearing things they do not want to hear.

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