On Sunday evening, a London university’s comedy society cancelled a gig. The organiser had received some complaints about the chosen comedian, and there were rumours that a feminist society might picket outside the event. So the organiser posted a cancellation notice on the group’s Facebook event. Only around 35 people had clicked “attending”.
Is this newsworthy? On its own, no, not really. But the Goldsmiths comedy society’s decision to cancel the show of feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite fits neatly into an ongoing debate about universities and who they allow to speak there, and for that reason, Twitter went mad:
Banning Kate Smurthwaite from Goldsmiths for having SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT OPINIONS is *insane*. Let’s just put “TW: New Ideas” on *everything*.
— James O’Malley (@Psythor) February 2, 2015
Never thought Kate Smurthwaite & Dapper Laughs would be able to commiserate on anything but there you go. Comedy, eh? http://t.co/hDQMIP6XyS
— Kate McCabe (@katemccabesays) February 2, 2015
So what actually happened?
The event was to be the last stop of Smurthwaite’s tour, “Leftie Cock Womble”, which focused on the subject of free speech (the irony of which hasn’t escaped the cancellation’s critics). On Sunday afternoon, Smurthwaite mentioned the possiblity that students may picket the event to the head of the comedy society. That night, the gig was cancelled.
In her message to the event’s attendees, the head of the comedy society cited complaints from students about Smurthwaite’s “position on sex work, religion and Trans issues,” and the “possibility of a picket line”. In a separate statement released today through the Student Union, she says:
Despite many complaints from students about the content of Kate’s act in the past we were planning to go ahead with the gig until Kate told me 24 hours before that there was likely to be a picket with lots of students and non students outside the venue. I couldn’t verify this. Up to this point we had only sold 8 tickets so I decided to pull the plug.
There is some confusion here. According to Smurthwaite, the organiser said the Student Union’s security raised concerns about their ability to deal with protesters, but this hasn’t made it into any of the comedy club’s statements about the cancellation (we have approached the organiser and SU President for comment on this). Equally, while only eight tickets were told, the event was offered free to members of the Comedy and Feminist societies, so it’s reasonable to assume that more than eight would have shown up.
That aside, Smurthwaite’s politics and the content of her comedy seems to have been the main bone of contention. Smurthwaite is vocal about her support for the Nordic model of sex work, in which paying for sex is criminalised. When I spoke to her today, she said this was probably the “main disagreement” she had with Goldsmiths students (this particular show didn’t actually contain any mention of prostitution). However, the organiser also cited her views on “religion and Trans issues”, which Smurthwaite is far less happy about:
I have never performed at, hosted or organised an event that excluded trans people. I’ve been working on a sitcom about trans people with a friend who is trans. I’m very involved in trans rights… I think countries that force women to wear the burqua are an absolute outrage, and I will fight back against them all day, but I don’t have a political view on women who choose to wear a scarf – I don’t think that’s any of my business.
In the organiser’s cancellation notice, she notes that given Smurthwaite’s views, and the potential picket line, “there is a likeliness that the Safe Space policy we abide by could be breached”. Here, she’s referring to a Student Union policy stating that societies’ events must be a “safe space” for all students. This means that all students must be able to attend, but it also, the policy continues, means societies must create “an accepting and safe environment in which people can experiment with what they do and who they are”.
In fact, the Smurthwaite gig was organised jointly by the feminist and comedy societies, and the feminist society held a meeting to decide whether they should cancel the event long before the final cancellation. The head of the society says that they voted against cancelling the gig, but decided to film the event to make sure it didn’t violate the Union’s safe space policy (the society has since tweeted that it had “nothing to do with” Sunday’s cancellation).
In line with National Union of Students policy, most UK student unions now have “safe space” policies, and this is perhaps what marks universities out in the long-running debate about free speech and how far it stretches. Alongside the NUS’s “no-platform” policy (in which it can assert that no student union or officer may give a platform to a specific person), it implies that on campus, students and student societies do more than host guests: they endorse them.
A recent spate of apparent “no-platformings” in individual universities has swung the spotlight towards these policies. In late October, Cardiff students successfully petitioned against a performance by comedian Daniel O’Reilly (better known as Dapper Laughs); shortly after, his ITV show was cancelled. In November, a debate on abortion at Oxford University co-hosted by Brendan O’Neill and Tim Stanley and organised by a pro-life group was cancelled due to a planned protest by feminist groups – later that week, the Spectator ran a long essay by Brendan O’Neill on the “The Stepford students- the new enemies of free speech”.
The cases of Smurthwaite, O’Reilly, and the abortion debate were all beset by similar misconceptions: most commonly, that the universities themselves cancelled the speakers. In fact the stories are of a society cancelling its own event, a Student Union cancelling a show following a petition, and an Oxford College changing its mind about providing a venue. Each is a case of a small group deciding to cancel an event – not of a university banning an event, or even a no-platforming.
So students aren’t, in any organised or concerted way, enemies of free speech: but there is enormous pressure on event organisers to avoid offence, or even violence, in student-run venues usually governed by NUS guidelines. Smurthwaite argues that she would have loved it if her critics showed up to the show: “Then we could have talked about it, and had a lively discussion”. Yet that ideal also relies on enough security to prevent matters getting out of hand, and event organisers happy to deal with controversy and criticism in the pressure cooker that is student politics.