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UCL, Malcolm Grant and One Directional Free Speech

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Having promised that UCL would ensure free speech for everyone, not just religious-extremists, Malcolm Grant's institution now prevents an advocate for democracy and Israel from speaking on its campus.

Ever since a former president of UCL's Islamic society, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, attempted to blow-up himself and a passenger jet full of people over the skies of Detroit, UCL has been no stranger to controversy.

Much of that controversy has surrounded the issue of the number of extremist hate preachers invited to come and speak at UCL. Had these people influenced the young Nigerian student down the path that would see him go on to become known as 'the Christmas day bomber'?

Certainly not would be the answer of UCL's Provost Malcolm Grant and any attempt to suggest that, perhaps, it might be wise to stem the flow of radicalising speakers coming to address Muslim students at UCL, would equally be met by protests from Grant that free speech must remain untampered with at academic institutions.

Only a few months ago Malcolm Grant told the Evening Standard that as far as hate preachers were concerned they should "Talk to our Muslim and Jewish students and they will tell you that it is a non-issue: it just doesn't exist,".

Yet clearly Grant has not been talking to the same students as I have, nor indeed the same ones that the campaign group Student Rights spoke to when they released a report demonstrating just how concerned students are about this issue. It would also seem that there is someone else who Grant doesn't remember speaking to about this matter; myself!

Back in 2009 I met with Malcolm Grant in an attempt to persuade him to prevent an extremist conference taking place at UCL whose speakers included among them those who were known to have incited terrorism and made some of the worst anti-Semitic and homophobic comments imaginable.

Indeed, one of the speakers, Zahir Mahmoud, had even spoken out against the very concept of free speech itself. Yet Grant insisted that he would not prevent any of the speakers from appearing at the event because to do so, so he claimed, would be to limit free speech at his university.

From what I was able to gather he believed that anyone should be allowed to say anything and that if the BNP wanted to bring Nick Griffin to his campus, well then he wouldn't stand in the way. Of course, this was a moot point because Britain's universities are hardly home to enthusiastic swathes of BNP supporters and neo-fascists (or at least not from the Right; I cannot speak with the same confidence about the position of the far-Left on our campuses).

As I was leaving the meeting I remarked to Grant that, in light of what he told me, did I then take it to be understood that conservatively minded or pro-Israel speakers could naturally expect to have the same freedoms extended to them and not find themselves turned away from UCL as they have been from other universities in recent years. Malcolm Grant assured me that this was the case and so this seemed like something of a gain, given that Benny Morris had been prevented from speaking at Cambridge and Douglas Murray and Dr Thilo Sarrazin had had their events cancelled by the Libyan funded LSE authorities on the grounds that it was Murray and Sarrazin that would represent a security threat and not the hardliners that might try to attack them or their listeners if their speaking engagements went ahead.

It was then with genuine surprise that I received the news that my friend and colleague, Sam Westrop of the Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy, had had his speakers request for the UCL Debating Society rescinded.

He had been due to speak about Israel and the Two State solution, which hardly seems to compare to Jalal Ibn Saeed, a previous speaker at UCL whose favourite topic would appear to be the merits of a slow death. However, UCL's Debating Society has claimed that having "run into some flack from the Union" resulted in their cancelling of Sam Westrop coming to speak for them and what is most remarkable of all is the Debating Society's revelation that this decision was taken after "discussion with the college and the Union" regarding the suitability of certain speakers following concerns "picked up on by outside parties". The Debating Society went on to explain that "This has led to the trickling down of stricter regulation and stricter enforcement of regulation by the powers that be". In other words the very pressure placed on UCL regarding concerns about hate preachers would now appear to be being redirected as a way to keep out the very people who have worked so hard to highlight the issue of extremism on campus, such as my colleague Sam Westrop.

It would seem then, that at UCL free speech has become a one directional affair. Under the guise of liberalism and freedom of expression some of the most hardline and illiberal of individuals have been brought to our universities while those who highlight this problem and defend democracy have been prevented from coming to campus on the grounds that their appearance might incite the very people that they seek to expose and what is all the more astonishing is that it is the very concerns raised about the presence of radical clerics at UCL that are now being used as the excuse to turn away a friend of democracy and a friend of Israel.

Editor's note - UCL have provided us with the following comment in response to this blog:

1/ Malcolm Grant, the Provost of UCL, is not personally responsible for policy on external speakers at UCL. There is a policy, adhered to by UCL Union (independent of UCL as the university), who are responsible for vetting external speakers coming to the Union, to ensure that anyone speaking on campus will abide with the laws, notably those covering protection from intimidation, discrimination and criminal incitement. UCLU is bound to act within the law and I have attached a copy of UCLU's policy for your information. UCLU for the record is one of the student bodies that does not have in place a 'no platform' policy, which does mean that speakers that other institutions may consider controversial are more likely to be accepted as speakers on UCL campus. So as a general rule, UCLU has more often been criticised in the past for who they have allowed to speak rather than situations where speakers have been refused permission.)

2/ On the specific case of Mr Westrop: the university is not aware of any invitation having been made or withdrawn. We have also been in contact with UCLU, who were also unaware of any invitation. So Mr Westrop's suitability as a speaker was never subject to the process as described above and in the attachment. Whatever has gone on has been at the level of an individual society affiliated to the Union, in this case the Debating Society.