No-platforming debate heats up at RHUL ahead of referendum

Earlier this month, the Royal Holloway Student’s Union (RHSU) announced an all-student referendum surrounding the issue of no-platforming speakers on campus following backlash against Debating Society’s invitation to Katie Hopkins to speak at an event. The referendum is “for students to collectively decide on a policy that governs the invitation and facilitation of external speakers at Students’ Union events and activities,” according to the Students’ Union’s website

Voting is open from November 6-8, with an in-person debate being held on November 1 to argue both for and against the motion. This event will be chaired by RHSU President, Jack O’Neill. 

In advance of this, the debate has been raging across Twitter and Facebook for the last few days, with each camp publicising their viewpoints to as many RHUL students as possible. Each side also has a Facebook page in order to strongly emphasise their reasons for voting yes or no to the policy. 

The Vote YES for No Platforming at RHUL page was “set up by the organisers of the previous open letter against Katie Hopkins coming to this uni. [sic]” The page is aiming to “reach as much of the student body, so we can take a stance against legitimising people like Katie Hopkins and allowing their rhetoric to shift our notions of what is considered moral.” 

Defend The Student Voice is the page advocating against the implementation of the no-platforming policy at RHUL. They state that they are “defending the student voice from the illegitimate, undemocratic and unnecessary No-Platforming Referendum.” 

Students supporting either side have used social media, in particular the Overheard at Royal Holloway Facebook group, to voice their grievances and concerns towards the opposition. 

Are we at a crossroads?

An open letter has also been launched, signed by many supporters of the ‘no’ campaign. Members of the Debating Society, who wanted Hopkins to come to RHUL in the first place, have signed it along with self-identifying young Conservatives on campus and members of the Mises Society, which advocates the philosophy of Ludwig von Mises and the values of liberty, libertarianism and freedom of speech. The Mises society has previously been criticised by people at RHUL due to their views on free speech and complaints that their political expression is “being… trod on.” 

The letter has also been signed by members of the Liberal Democrats Society at RHUL, and many other students whose political leanings are currently unknown.

The letter states that “we are at a crossroads,” with one leading “to the continuation of debate and discussion, as is our right as students and academics at this historic institution… [while] the other road would indefinitely silence the growing culture of debate on campus, regardless of political agenda as policed by the unchecked Students’ Union’s subjective moral compass.” 

Jake Bite, a member of the Overheard at RHUL group, said: “A group of Tories and alt right chuds got together in a basement and pretended to represent the majority of students,” by signing the open letter. 

RHUL Student and Left Forum President Amber Onver said, “Social media in regards to the debate reflects the changing nature of discourse, which is now open to the public more than ever. Formal structures for debate have eroded in value over the last few decades, partly due to increase in technology but also because of the rise of far right populism which has shifted the nature of debate, being a sceptical, anti-academic movement.”

Students Express Concern

Equivalent Twitter accounts for each side have also been created – @Can’tDebateHate and @RHStudentVoice. Ex-students have used Twitter to voice their concerns over the anger directed at supporters of no-platforming as a result of the vitriol. A source, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of harassment, told London Student that prospective students are being put off applying to RHUL due to these posts as well as a concern that the Defend The Student Voice Twitter account’s branding implies an affiliation with either RHSU or the university itself.

Jack O’Neill told London Student in response:

“The referendum on whether the Students’ Union should adopt a No Platform for Hate Speech on Campus was called following the large-scale debate that was occurring within the student body at Royal Holloway. It was done so entirely legitimately by the Officer Group whom have the powers to call a referendum, as clearly outlined in the Constitution (Byelaw B & Article 7) that was overwhelmingly approved by the student body in the last academic year alongside all of the other democratic reforms. Ultimately, we firmly believe that a topic of this nature should be determined by all students in order for the student body to collectively determine the position of their Union.”

He also said, “In a debate on this topic, [while] it is expected that students hold strong views, it is also important that students conduct themselves in a respectful manner when engaging in such debates, and this has been involved in all communications regarding the referendum.”

Image Credit: Michele Theil

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