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Shouting Down David Willetts

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DAVID WILLETTS
PA

On Tuesday 22 November Universities Minister David Willetts came to give a lecture at Cambridge University, he was not allowed to speak by student protesters. In this article Calum Macdonald, President of the Cambridge Union Society, condemns the actions of the protesters.

David Willetts has an opinion on what the idea of the university is, but when he agreed to come and share this view at Cambridge University, he was denied the chance to speak. Within seconds of stepping up to the podium, Willetts was met with an angry mass counter-speech from Cambridge Defend Education.

It was a self-important and embarrassing strategy. It also didn't help matters that the protestors' speech was strange, silly and indulgent. They chanted every line of their letter twice, despite the acoustics being perfectly good enough for us to hear the first time.

It was an overlong rant loaded with lines an average person would not be able to take seriously.
I lost track about half way through when a metaphor about sour honey was used. Rarely has a group played up to the stereotype of immature and irritating radical students totally detached from the real world, refusing to listen to the other side of the argument while angrily insisting that they must be heard. This is not an article in support of the government's policy on universities, but I could not think a better method for anti-fee protestors to alienate normal people.

The hijack was a self-defeating and disgraceful violation of free speech. It was the opposite of what any university should stand for - the free and rigorous exchange of ideas.

Quite why Defend Education couldn't have just engaged with the event is a point so obvious it's almost not worth mentioning. The majority of the audience, judging by comments afterwards, were pretty interested in seeing whether Willetts could reconcile the idea of a university with £9,000 headline fees. They didn't seem likely to be "lobotomised", as the protestors insinuated.

This would be a pretty obvious article if I just left it at "free speech good - disruptive protesters bad." The real question is: if some people won't respect free speech in Cambridge, what should we do about it?

As Union president, I ran an event earlier in the year with Local Government Minister Eric Pickles. Luckily, we got a warning of trouble and had half a dozen security guards were on hand when 20 or so protesters broke into the building and tried to stop the event. The way we handled that came in for criticism.

The fact is that to continue the event we had to throw people out forcibly. Free speech is important, but sometimes you wonder if it's actually worth using force just so we can hear an MP repeat some old points. Personally I changed my mind after this term - it is worth the risk of occasionally being slightly heavy handed.

Because in the Cambridge context, or at any other university, free speech is something you protect or you lose. Every time a government minister gets a reception like this, it gets harder to convince others to come to Cambridge - there's no shortage of alternative forums where they'll actually get a chance to speak.

We've got to challenge those who abuse the right. The night before Willett's speech at Cambridge University Student Union (CUSU) council, members of Defend Education were asked if they had any plans to prevent free speech. They said no - they lied in front of a hundred people.

Student representatives should make sure CUSU refuse to support CDE unless they can engage maturely and honestly, and show that we too have an idea of a university, it should be somewhere that favours free speech and debate over mindless shouting.

If you are a member of the Cambridge Union and are interested in contributing to this blog, email press@cus.org for more details.

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