South College’s Principal Tim Luckhurst has come under fire this week for his reaction to students following offensive comments made from guest speaker Rod Liddle during South’s Christmas formal. Luckhurst called students “pathetic” for walking out after Liddle made controversial comments surrounding transgender people, colonialism and single mothers. He also stated that students “shouldn’t be at university” if they refuse to listen to ‘alternative views’. In his own defence, Luckhurst stated in an email to all South students that he “responded to their decision by reminding students that South College is committed to the defence of free speech”. However, he apologises for his reaction:
“When they did not return to their seats, I called their walkout ‘pathetic’. My anger reflected my sincere commitment to freedom of speech. However, I was wrong to describe the students’ actions as pathetic and I apologise unreservedly for doing so. The students had as much right to absent themselves from the speech as my guest had to make it.”
Durham University has launched an investigation into the circumstances and, in an email to all students Monday 6th December, Acting Vice-Chancellor Antony Long stated: “I want to assure you that the University categorically does not agree with the views expressed by the external speaker at this occasion. Also, I am most concerned, as are my UEC (University Executive Committee) colleagues, at reports that some behaviours exhibited at the occasion may have fallen short of those we expect.”
However, this situation begs the question: should there be greater transparency when it comes to the invitation of guest speakers at university events? I believe this situation is a clear example of why this should be the case. Students weren’t aware of who the guest speaker would be prior to paying £10 for the night – and I highly doubt many of them would have wanted to come had they known what was on offer. It only takes a simple Google search to find some of the disturbing content Rod Liddle has produced, which makes it all the more surreal that South College thought that he would be a suitable speaker for such an occasion.
The argument that Tim Luckhurst has upheld regarding freedom of speech and healthy debate is not particularly applicable here. For one, this was not simply an expression of ‘alternative views’ nor was it a debate where the other side of the argument could be expressed: it was a prejudiced hate-filled rant designed to provoke in my opinion. Students, who have arguably been grossly misled, shouldn’t be expected to listen to such vitriol on a night which is supposed to be a fun and festive celebration to mark the end of term. For many students in their final year who have missed out on so much because of the pandemic, that may have been their last Christmas formal – only for it to be ruined by the comments of a bigoted man.
Therefore, there should be more transparency when it comes to the appointment of guest speakers – those attending should be involved within the process, suggesting people they find engaging and inspiring, or being allowed to exercise their democracy with a vote. The expectation of students to obediently listen when it comes to things they don’t agree with only serves to perpetuate the idea that only certain groups of people are welcomed within the Durham University community. And, if by some miracle, you’re one of the lucky few to get in despite all that, you’re expected to put up and shut up. That mindset is so very apparent across Durham from all the news we have seen over the past few years – and, clearly, it needs to change.