British students demonstrate for free speech, others protest against inciting racism

British students demonstrate for free speech, others protest against inciting racism

 Students at Durham University in England held a demonstration on 9 February after the British National Union of Students intervened with the students’ plan to invite two representatives of the British National Party (BNP), Chris Beverly and Andrew Brons, to speak at a debate.

The debate was scheduled for February 12, with political analyst and commentator Kulveer Ranger, and Member of British Parliament Edward Leigh of the center-right Conservative Party were also invited to speak. The National Union of Students wrote to Durham Students’ Union, its Vice-Chancellor and the organizers of the event, the Union Society, advising against the debate as they deemed it likely to trigger violence and racism.

National Union of Students Officers Bellavia Ribeiro-Addy and Daf Adley stated that the university is “bound under Race Relations legislation to promote equality of opportunity, eliminate racial discrimination, as well as fulfill the requirements of your race equality policy.” They added: “We can confidently tell you that inviting members of the British National Party to address your students does not fulfill these requirements and therefore you may bring legal consequences upon yourselves.”

On the choice of speaker, the NUS wrote: “The same Andrew Brons you would like to speak has been seen shouting “Death to Jews”, “White Power” and when approached by a Black police constable said “inferior beings like yourself probably do not understand the principle of free speech”.

A campaign entitled “Durham Students for Freedom of Speech” has erupted with a demonstration against the suggested cancellation of the event. Organizers of the event commented that they are “severely disappointed that the NUS, an organization established to protect the rights of its members, has chosen to apply what we believe to be threatening tactics in an attempt to force the DUS to cancel the planned debate. We believe this to be a betrayal on the part of the NUS, which should be committed to the fundamental principle of freedom of speech.”

On the issue of free speech, the NUS representatives stated in their letter that “We are advocates of free speech and agree that people should be allowed to say whatever they want regardless of whether we agree with it or not, but we also recognize that with this freedom comes responsibility, and if their speech is to the detriment of others’ safety, that freedom is negated.” They added that “We expect you would not allow someone to speak on the right to bear arms on campus or pedophiles whose main message is that sex with minors is acceptable as long as they consent. Yet you would allow a group that thinks that a number of your students do not even have the right to be in this country headline your event.”

The initial response from Durham University was resistant, with a reply being sent highlighting that the debate was consistent with the University’s code of practice. Durham Union Society and the University later called off the debate when “it became clear that the safety of students, staff and visitors outside of the debating chamber could not be guaranteed” as they stated in their final response to the NUS  and wider resistance.

Carolyn Fowler, the University’s Registrar stated that “the views of the BNP are diametrically opposed to Durham University’s expressed ethos of cultural-diversity and tolerance. We welcome staff and students of all cultures and faiths and from all parts of the world.”


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