THE BLOG
04/02/2015 06:50 GMT | Updated 05/04/2015 06:59 BST

At Goldsmiths, the Mere Threat of a Backlash Against Comedian Kate Smurthwaite Was Able to Shut Down Free Speech

"So fucking Goldsmiths."

That is the phrase that immediately sprang to mind after reading that a performance at the London university by comedian Kate Smurthwaite was cancelled last night in response to feminist opposition.

This self-aware little saying - usually shortened to just SFG - is often muttered by students at Goldsmiths, generally with a roll of the eyes, in reference to certain alternative tastes that are found on campus. If not a comment on the attire that many wear, it can also be a nod to the loonier politics that some students involve themselves in. The kind of thinking, for example, that in October last year saw the students' union refuse to commemorate the Holocaust for fear of being 'Eurocentric and colonialist'.

In the case of last night's cancelled performance, Smurthwaite's thoughtcrimes were twofold: one, to have supported the 'Nordic model' of prostitution, whereby the buying of sex is an offence rather than the selling of it; and two, to have stated her discomfort at women being forced to wear the burqa in certain countries, especially when they are punished for not doing so.

It's hard to fathom how anybody in Britain could be offended by these opinions enough to picket a small comedy show. Indeed, there has been some debate over who was really responsible for pulling the plug on the performance; the feminist society, the comedy society, and the students' union all pleaded their innocence. But it is clear that no one, bar Smurthwaite herself, made a principled stand of any significance.

Smurthwaite, who has since published details of her conversation with the comedy society organiser, was warned that airing her opinions on prostitution would breach the university's 'safe space' policy. 'Our union is "for" sex working...it would probably be best to avoid that area of conversation,' the organiser said, before suggesting that there would be 'massive repercussions' if Smurthwaite spoke out of place. Ultimately it proved too much. 'I've spoken to security,' the event organiser later added, 'and because of the risk of a picket line we can't go ahead because we can't ensure the safety of students.'

This begs the question of whom, and what, the 'safe space' policy is supposed to protect. Why does it act as such a straightjacket when a comedian may dare to suggest that the burqa is illiberal, for example, and yet, when a student event is threatened by disruption, the commitment to creating a 'safe space' is exercised not by ensuring the event is properly protected, but by making it a responsibility to concede to the demands of the aggressors? The only threat to safety in this case was not Smurthwaite's material, but rather the supposed threat of an intolerant feminist mob.

That is, of course, if a significant protest had actually been planned. Other than a few tweets, there is little evidence online of an organised backlash. Indeed, perhaps we should take the feminist society for their word; they had, after all, just voted in favour of Smurthwaite's right to perform by 70 to 30 per cent (hardly a ringing endorsement for simple freedom of speech, but a majority nonetheless).

Rather it seems to have been the self-censorship and spinelessness of the organisers that caused the event not to go ahead. A write-up on the New Statesmandismisses this, rather casually, as 'a small group deciding to cancel an event - not of a university banning an event, or even a no-platforming'. But this should be as much of a concern as if university management had got involved directly. After all, it is a sign of the censors' increasing power when ideas are silenced through pre-emptive fear rather than an iron hand itself.

As Robert Dahl's concept of power famously states: 'A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.' The unnamed organiser appears to have been so afraid of creating any controversy or breaking the university's restrictive 'safe space' guidelines that ultimately he/she lost all emotional energy to go through with the event.

Students by and large support the idea of a university being a place for the free exchange of ideas, and generally have a low opinion of the wackier preoccupations of their elected representatives. But this regrettable affair is a reminder of the shallow commitment that many students have to free expression, and how quick some are to avoid confrontation when a backlash surfaces.

Yesterday, online magazine Spiked published its Free Speech University Rankings, which concluded that 80 per cent of universities censor speech in some form. More telling, perhaps, is that students themselves are more likely to stifle free speech than university management: students' unions were more than five times more likely to be awarded a red mark on Spiked's ratings than universities. This is further evidence that today's campus censors are not Ivory-towered big-wigs but, as Brendan O'Neill argued in November, the students themselves. The sooner we ditch the 'so fucking Goldsmiths' mentality the better.