The debate over “no-platforming” may end up sucking the life out of campuses

It’s tempting to dismiss the Amber Rudd affair as just another battle over free speech on campus.

Speakers have been shut down before, the Conservative government has gone on its rants, and not very much has changed.

What’s different this time, however, is that it was a society that was responsible for inviting Amber Rudd which decided to rescind that invitation. This was neither a top-down decision by censorious SU officials, nor the event being shut down by protesters. All that happened here was that students changed their minds about an invitation and decided not to go ahead with it.

While the precise shape of regulation is yet to be seen, the only way to prevent this specific type of incident from happening again would be to stop societies from rescinding invitations to external speakers. In the name of free speech, students would not be allowed to change their minds – and if this sounds absurd, that’s because it is.

Let the right one in

To start with, external speakers don’t have the right to be on campus. Anyone who’s had to deal with university and SU bureaucracy around external speakers can testify to this. At Goldsmiths, where I currently study, it takes a whopping 25 working days (or five weeks) for a society to get approval for an external speaker event.

As far as these speakers are concerned, they’re on campus by the grace of the students (or staff) who’ve invited them; as far as the EHRC’s guidance for SUs and HE providers is concerned, the duty to protect freedom of speech only extends to making sure that societies are allowed to invite anyone within the bounds of the law.

The EHRC makes it very clear that there is no duty on students, SUs, or HE providers to invite anyone, ever, and nothing in the guidance says societies can’t cancel on the speakers they’ve invited. External speakers aren’t vampires – even if you’ve invited them in, you can still change your mind and kick them out.

Preventing societies from rescinding invitations could thus create an effective “duty to invite” that would kick in if there was any controversy around speakers that might potentially result in an event being cancelled.

The result would be farcical: a speaker would have no right to be on campus unless someone says they shouldn’t be there, at which point nobody (including the people who consented to them being there) would have the right to stop them.

In theory, this would stop societies from cancelling the speakers they’ve invited. In practice, it would be more likely to deter societies from inviting speakers in the first place.

Risk and reputation

External speaker events make higher education livelier; having a cool academic or groundbreaking entrepreneur in to speak attracts student engagement. However, controversial external speakers also come with serious reputational risk.

A rule preventing external speakers from being disinvited would be likely to result in HE providers and SUs changing how they respond to this. If there is no way to get rid of a controversial external speaker once they’ve been invited, a risk-mitigating response would be to impose maximum scrutiny on every speaker to make sure every potential reputational risk is covered and controlled for.

Naturally, this would mean more bureaucracy. External speaker processes – applied to hundreds of events every year at the larger universities – are already burdensome on providers and SUs. Imposing tougher scrutiny on external speaker bookings would likely contribute to even longer wait times for external speaker events, which would make it much harder for societies (especially smaller and less active ones) to book events.

It would also risk snarling up bookings if external speaker availability suddenly changes and events have to be rescheduled, requiring students to go through the booking process all over again.

Socs it to em

To societies, too, this would pose a huge problem. Sure, some people and societies don’t care what other students think of them. It is entirely possible, however, that society committees would think twice about inviting external speakers if they couldn’t disinvite them in the face of a torrent of online criticism.

It also means, in practice, that events can’t be planned too far ahead, in case a speaker pulls a milkshake duck and says something absolutely horrific and contrary to the society’s values between the invitation and the event. Add this to delays caused by enhanced external speaker checks, and it would become even harder to book events.

The net result, therefore, would probably be fewer external speaker events. As fans of the free market, the Conservatives should be well aware that if you increase the cost of doing something, you get less of it. Increasing the cost to providers, SUs and students in time, effort and working hours is likely to reduce the number of external speakers that a provider or SU can handle, and cut down on students’ willingness to book external speaker events.

It would be a shame, therefore, if the debate around “no-platforming” is allowed to suck the life out of campuses. Students, and higher education providers, would be missing out on so much if risk-averse providers and SUs piled on the bureaucracy, and tired and harassed students refused to invite external speakers, should the regulation make those invitations irreversible.

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