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26 November 2015

Why a group of Brunel students walked out on Katie Hopkins instead of no-platforming her

"We silently walked out because Ms Hopkins has the right to speak, but we also have the right to express our discontent."

By Barbara Speed

Earlier this week, columnist and all-round provocateur Katie Hopkins turned up to Brunel University to join a panel in debating whether the welfare state has a place in 2015. No prizes for guessing her stance on this particular issue

But as Hopkins began her speech, something odd happened. Around 50 students stood up and left, leaving the hall half-empty.

Here’s the video:

As soon as Hopkins begins speaking, some students stand up with their backs to the panelists. Then, they all leave – as the nonplussed chair asks them to “please return to their seats”. 

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The walk-out was, in fact, pre-planned by the student union as an act of protest against Hopkins’ appearance at an event held as part of the University’s 50th anniversary celebrations. 

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Ali Milani, the Brunel Student Union president, says he and other students knew the walk-out would “start a conversation” around no-platforming on campuses, but as he points out, “What is often overlooked (either purposely or as a result of the fanfare) is that the conversation at no point has been about banning Ms Hopkins from speaking on campus, or denying her right to speak.”

Instead, students who found her appearance at the welfare debate “incongruous” and “distasteful” simply left the room: “We silently walked out because Ms Hopkins has the right to speak, but we also have the right to express our discontent.”

Milani praised the student body for treading the line between freedom of speech and expressing their distaste at Brunel’s decision: 

“They have respectfully voiced their antagonism at the decision of their institution, but also . . . proven their commitment to free of speech and freedom of expression.”

The protest was an apt way to dodge the issues of free speech surrounding no-platforming, while rejecting Hopkins’ views. A walk-out symbolises the fact that we aren’t obliged to listen to people like Hopkins. She is free to speak, of course, albeit to empty chairs. 

Update 27/11: Katie Hopkins has responded to the walk-out in a piece for the Daily Mailaccusing the students of being closed-minded for not wanting to listen to her speech:

After what happened to me at Brunel University I wonder if we no longer teach students how to think but what to think.

She then goes on to accuse Brunel professor Peter Beresford of organising the protest, based on a tweet in which he, er, implies it wasn’t an effective way to combat Hopkins’ views. The tweet read: “Glad students came 2debate, happy they protested, but walking out on Katie Hopkins doesn’t make her go away.” 

We also enjoyed this bit of poetry included in the column:

Naturally I carried on regardless.
Because, for them, I have no regard.
Because they are already decided.

Keep fighting the good fight, Katie.