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On 7th April 2016 the University of Exeter passed the Right2Debate motion which was designed to challenge extremist views while promoting free speech. Right2Debate is a student led Quilliam Foundation initiative which doesn’t necessarily promote the banning of speakers but claims to promote more free speech by instilling a mechanism where extremist (but still legal) views can be challenged by the presence of an opposing speaker.

 

The proposed framework works in the following way. If a controversial speaker is invited to an event, university students are allowed to form a petition and can send the petition to the Students Union if they have 25 signatories or over, while providing evidence to substantiate their points. The SU will then deliberate the motion and then release their judgment publicly. If they agree with the petition, they are then required to find an opposing speaker where by the event will then take the format of a debate with a neutral moderator.

 

This sounds fine until you understand the context within which university societies, especially Islamic and pro-palestinian societies operate and I suspect that if this motion is put in place, the aforementioned societies will be the ones most affected. The whole issue of an opposing speaker seems fine on the surface, but this raises more questions than answers. Must we have an opposing speaker to explain why they left Islam, for an Islamic society event with a speaker explaining why they joined the faith? Will the Palestinian societies have to accommodate a pro-zionist speaker at an event about Palestinian rights? Or we can flip the script; will pro-zionist societies host a pro-palestinian speaker like Ilan Pappe? Or will the quilliam societies host an opposing speaker who has an alternative view than that of contemporary human rights or secularism itself?

 

In this atmosphere of suspicion and monitoring of certain student societies, I feel as though the pro-zionist and Quilliam societies will fare better than those siding with the Palestinians and ISOC’s. I say this because there is already an atmosphere of bias opposing these kind of societies, an atmosphere that the right2debate policy does not challenge (In some cases, the Quilliam foundation, and its representative in the Right2Debate Initiative, Haydar Zaki have been involved in the targeting of ISOC’s) and so the more I read in to Quilliams Right2Debate initiative, the more I am left with the feeling that the main objective of it is to police thought (especially those belonging to the left) than to actually provide a platform where enlightenment can be enhanced. Many students have already told me that it is already getting difficult for them to host events as many universities are employing stricter vetting procedures, which in some circles is welcome, but it’s coming at a cost where many people within these societies feel like they have lost their voice, or are beginning to lose their voice, to oppose such decisions. This is more so implemented within the Right2Debate policy itself.

 

The policy states that if the petition is “rejected, the host society of the petition has a right to reply that must also be uploaded alongside this material.” The policy goes on “If a petition is successful, the university’s SU must make all reasonable efforts to provide a speaker agreed with the society that launched the petition. This speaker will provide a differing opinion that will challenge the petition’s subject.” Notice how if the petition is rejected than the society that launched the petition has the right of reply but if the petition is accepted, than the SU “must make all reasonable efforts to provide a speaker agreed with the society that launched the petition” BUT there is no mention of the society that organized the event, having the right to appeal the decision and the evidence provided with the petition. An appeal, along with their evidence, which should be made available for the public.

 

The policy goes on, “If agreement cannot be achieved or it is not possible to obtain a speaker, then the society who launched the petition will be given a minimum 30-minute platform during the mandatory hour-long Q&A session. Confirmation of additional speakers or the failure to obtain additional speakers must be published by the SU.”

I am all for debate and the voicing of opposing views to be aired and clarified, but why must members of the society who launched the petition be given a 30-minute platform during the Q&A session? Rather than preserving speech, this sounds like the Quilliamites imposing their illiberal will on how students should run their own events. This, along with other demands of the policy such as mandatory filming of the event which should be made public, make it seem like the right2debate policy is anything but for the promotion of free speech. The tone of the policy gives it a liberal totalitarian feel.

The conservatism practiced by *some* societies did raise some questions for me when I used to visit their events but this is to be addressed by the students alongside their respective universities who should work together to find a way where a certain level of conservatism and a certain level of liberalism can, and should be accommodated. Deep down, having read the policy and researching the Quilliam Foundation, I don’t believe that that is the objective of the Right2Debate policy.

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