Nick Clegg, the former deputy Prime Minister, has cancelled a speech at the University due to the threat of student protest and potential security concerns.

The Sheffield Star has reported that former Sheffield Hallam MP Nick Clegg has had to cancel a sold-out talk at the Students’ Union because of ‘security concerns’ resulting from student protests. This is not just a terrible outcome for the students who had reserved tickets for this event, but should send a cold shiver down the spine of any student who believes in free speech.

Preventing Nick Clegg from speaking to a group of Sheffield students through the threat of protest sets a dangerous precedent for the future. Any societies wanting to invite controversial figures to speak at the Student’s Union should not have to fear protests and embarrassment. I am sure that most students would agree with me that everyone from Jacob Rees-Mogg to Nicolás Maduro (president of Venezuela) should be able to address students at any university around the country, should they be invited. We cannot divine the truth unless we hear arguments from all sides.   

As students, we are here to learn as much about the world as we can by accessing as many sources of information as possible. The more points of view you read or listen to, the sharper your critical reasoning will become. If all you get from your university education is a few bad hangovers and the ability to critique ideas effectively, then it has been worth every penny. No one will be pulling the wool over your eyes.  

I would go as far as saying that preventing speakers from addressing students is tantamount to the robbery of ideas. Every potential speaker has a unique point of view. In Nick Clegg’s case, it would have also offered the opportunity to network and engage with an individual who was at the of heart of government for five years. This situation is comparable to idea of a restricted-books section, a politically incorrect section of the library that only authorised students would have access to. It defeats the whole purpose of a university education and allows other people to control what sources of information you have access to and consume. This cannot be allowed to happen in the future.

However, I do understand the balancing act the Students’ Union has to undertake. It must balance the rights of people to protest with the guest speakers’ rights to free speech. I would call on the students who threaten such protests to show restraint and be open to listening to ideas that they might find distasteful.

There is currently a trend in Britain and America to ‘no platform’ people – to stop people from having the chance to express their views through the threat of violent protest. Groups that feel disenfranchised have also been disrupting talks to stop people from speaking.  No platforming someone will not prevent an idea from spreading, and it will not silence the proponents of the idea. As has been shown by the recent US elections, stopping people from expressing views only leads to those people keeping quiet and expressing their feelings through the ballot box. You cannot stop an idea by silencing it. You can stop or challenge ideas by taking the proponent of that idea to task in open and free debate, or by writing strong critical pieces about it and laying it out bare, in the bright light of day for all to see.

I would respectfully ask the Students’ Union and relevant members of the university staff to clarify with all the societies what measures it will take in future to balance both the needs of free speech and the right to protest, so all parties will feel that they have been heard. At its very core, the mission of a university is to promote the critical exchange of ideas. Students come from all over the world to the University of Sheffield, sometimes from places that do not have the levels of free speech we enjoy in Britain. I sincerely hope that freedom will not be hindered in the future.

 

We reached out for comment to Lilian Jones, President of the Students’ Union:

The University and its Students’ Union were happy to host the Q&A with Nick Clegg, and it was not our decision to cancel the event. The Students’ Union events team took several measures to ensure that he was able to attend, and worked closely with the Young Liberals society to mitigate any security risks when they occurred. We believe that external speakers play a central role in university life and allow students to be exposed to a range of different beliefs, to challenge other people’s views and to develop their own opinions. We recognise that some speakers invited by our societies will generate an emotive response from other members of the SU, and we work with the university to ensure we have sufficient measures in place to ensure everyone can enjoy the event safely. We know that our students were looking forward to the event, and we were disappointed that Nick Clegg felt that he had to cancel.   

 

Image credit: Alex Folkes/Fishnik Photography

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