@ewansomerville

The University has defended screening a Labour MP who has called antisemitism claims in his party “a dirty, lowdown trick”, as not endangering staff or students, insisting that speakers with alternative views should not be no-platformed.

Sheffield Labour Students (SLS) caused outrage in inviting Chris Williamson to campus earlier in November, and then standing by this despite Sheffield Jewish Society (JSoc) slamming it as “a betrayal of Jewish students in Sheffield”.

Forge Press revealed that SLS later “indefinitely postponed” the event, a panel discussion on the war in Yemen, amid a police probe into antisemitism claims within the Labour Party and JSoc telling SLS to “respect the concerns of Jewish students”.

It comes as Sheffield Students’ Union Council joined the outcry with a motion on November 16 condemning the MP for Derby North “for encouraging a culture of antisemitism”, in what a senior source in the meeting said was an impassioned and emotional speech from JSoc co-chair Gabe Milne.

JSoc accused him of having “repeatedly defended, and shared platforms with, anti-Semites expelled from the Labour Party”.

Controversial speakers shouldn’t be no-platformed

Chris Williamson MP. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

But despite this, University Security concluded that there was no risk when they screened the panel. After Forge Press questioned this, the University insisted that speakers with “different beliefs” should not be no-platformed, but rather should be open to challenge.

A University of Sheffield spokesperson said: “External speakers play a central role in university life and allow students to be exposed to a range of different beliefs, challenge other people’s views and develop their own opinions.

“It is important that universities are places where difficult topics are discussed and where people, however controversial their views, should be allowed to speak within the law, and have their views challenged openly.”

students SHOULD be exposed to a range of different beliefs, ALLOWING THEM TO challenge other people’s views and develop their own opinions.

The scandal over the November 8 saw JSoc co-chair Mr Milne cancel his Labour membership, and the co-chair and Events Officer of SLS left their committee positions in protest.

The Union of Jewish Students said the invitation sent “a strong message that antisemitism, and those that deny it, will be tolerated in a movement which claims to be anti-racist.”

SLS react, SU Council condemn

Firth Court, University of Sheffield (Wikimedia Commons)

Minutes of the SLS committee meeting on October 30 showed members describing Williamson as “part of our movement”, labelling it “unfair to rescind an invitation based on no evidence” of anti-semitism on internationally agreed guidelines.

The influential Sheffield SU Council later publicly “condemned” Mr Williamson and said they would “privately issue a statement to Jewish students, via the Jewish Society, expressing the SU’s solidarity and commitment to combating antisemitism”.

In a statement, SLS also entered the no-platforming debate in their defence of the invitation, adding: “We also feel that in this case we would have to ban those Labour Party MP’s who voted in favour of the Iraq war, or those who, more recently, voted in support of air strikes on Syria or continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia.”

A screenshot of Mr Williamson’s twitter feed.

In April, Mr Williamson tweeted in defence of former Labour Party member Scott Nelson, expelled from the party for tweeting about the “Jewish blood” and “Jewish ancestors” of British companies “exploiting” workers abroad.

When another user raised the comments, Williamson tweeted: “He repeatedly apologised for those comments. […] Please give him a chance.”

Speaking to Forge Press earlier this month, JSoc said: “It is impossible to say what the lasting impact [of the fallout from the event] will be but we hope that all societies and organisations on campus will consider and respect the concerns of Jewish students on campus.”

The debate isn’t over yet?

Chris Williamson could still be re-invited to campus when the Met Police antisemitism probe has concluded. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

The event took place with Mr Williamson elsewhere in the city hosted by Sheffield Labour Left, a group not tied to the University, but he could still be re-invited to campus as it was “indefinitely postponed”, not cancelled.

Mr Milne said: “If it does happen again in future JSoc will act accordingly in the interests of Jewish students, however we would emphasise that this instance was an exceptional case and we hope it stays that way.”

“VIEWS THAT INCITE INTIMIDATION OR VIOLENCE ARE BANNED FROM CAMPUS”

SLS added that they would “immediately rescind all invitations to speak at our events” if an official complaint was lodged against Mr Williamson.

The University spokesperson added: “The University of Sheffield supports the open expression of views and follows guidance from Universities UK and the Office for Students around external speakers.

“However, we also take our responsibility to our students, staff and community very seriously, and prohibit any public expression of views on our premises that are in breach of the law or incite intimidation or violence.”

@ewansomerville

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