UPDATE 15/03/13: The NUS have disputed that they played a role in CSU's decision to prevent Galloway from speaking, saying: "It is our understanding that in this particular case, both after consulting its own students and discussing the issue with university management, the students' union itself decided it would not endorse this particular event rather than to bar any particular speaker, as the piece suggests."
The NUS also say George Galloway is not on the Union's 'No Platform' list
The University of Chester Debating Society attempted to host an event with the MP for Bradford West, George Galloway. However, at a meeting of NUS's national executive council last year, executive members resolved not to speak at events with George Galloway.
As an elected official, the society thought that his contribution to a debate on immigration would be valued (probably controversial) and contestable - as is the nature of a debate.
However, due was apparently due to the National Union of Students' (NUS) 'No Platform' policy, his appearance was barred, and this was upheld by the University of Chester Student's Union (CSU). The policy is designed to protect students from potentially offensive speakers. However, in an event where the students of the society all consented to his appearance, is this policy student protection, or is it a violation of free speech and an example of bureaucratic NUS practices?
In the interview with CSU President, Katie Badman, Badman appears to say the NUS have based its action on the assumption that the NUS had 'no-platformed' George Galloway. The NUS denies this however.
As a keen defender of free speech, it is important to ask the institutions involved, about how they think freedom of speech may be undermined by their decision. Firstly, the CSU President, Katie Badman, has been interviewed on this issue; however it is being used in the student newspaper and so cannot be used here. These comments are taken from a public questioning event held on 4 March 2013, whereby Ms Badman and the other candidates for the CSU elections were questioned by the public. Ms Badman explained that free speech is "completely necessary within the system" so long as "it doesn't harm anyone else, or hurt anyone else." However, free speech affords itself the right and space to sometimes be controversial, something that has been overlooked here.
Secondly, Tabz O'Brien-Butcher - women's officer of University of Manchester Students Union (MSU) - was asked, as she consulted with CSU about this issue when it was first raised. Ms O'Brien-Butcher dismissed free speech as a "completely separate issue" to the George Galloway event, and did not comment further.
Thirdly of course is the NUS. As a student, I am disappointed as to how difficult it was to get in contact with the NUS. Nevertheless, after several emails and a well-timed Tweet to Liam Burns (NUS President), I received an email from a spokesperson at the press office. My question about free speech was ignored.
Free speech in relation to this event appears, unfortunately to have been neglected. However, as the questioning continued, the wider issue of Student Union Bureaucracy became a problem too. During the questioning event, Katie Badman was asked whether future decisions would be those of CSU, or would NUS policy be followed without diversion. Ms Badman answered, by saying that the NUS are "a completely separate organisation. They set their own rules and we are free to choose whether we agree with them or not. Because our students are Chester Students, and they're not the students everywhere around the country."
The NUS spokesperson echoed this by saying "We do not and nor would we seek to compromise the independence and autonomy of our member students' unions by imposing decisions on their democratic structures." Ms O'Brien-Butcher also commented on this, explaining that "Each University and Students' Union is an autonomous body who make their own decisions." However, if this autonomy and independence does in fact exist, why was MSU and the NUS consulted, over the heads of the Chester Students involved?
The University of Chester Debating Society was consulted, during which they were notified by CSU, that MSU would protest on the Chester campus, should George Galloway's appearance go ahead. I asked about this threat of action, and Ms O'Brien-Butcher assured me that "At no point did I or any elected officer at Manchester Students' Union threaten to protest Galloway's appearance at Chester. We spoke through the situation and I offered some insight into our own experiences at Manchester, at the request of [Chester Student Union's] sabbatical team."
Whether these threats were made or not has yet to be established. However, what has been established is that MSU did in fact host an event, whereby a speaker stood and made comments that were homophobic and offensive. Manchester's involvement with CSU affairs began to look hypocritical. When asked about this event, Tabz O'Brien-Butcher could not comment.
Evidence suggests a restriction on the right to free speech of George Galloway. Questions surrounding this were ignored, and the selective nature of who is and is not entitled to free speech is clear, and in certain cases could be deemed hypocritical. Student protection is understandable, however the decisions made amongst the unions have left students feeling disenfranchised and angry, unable to influence a system that supposedly represents them.
A statement was sent through by the press office of George Galloway, describing the NUS 'no platform' policy as "Idiotic, anti-democratic and politically-motivated." With the evidence presented, it is for you decide how true this is.
"I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" - Voltaire.
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