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6 December 2021

Rachel Cunliffe

If Rod Liddle has the right to lecture Durham students about sex work, where’s my invitation to talk about cats?

After students were condemned for walking out of a surprise dinner talk by the controversial right-wing columnist, I have some questions about freedom of speech.

Unless you go to Durham University or have an unhealthy relationship with Twitter, you probably haven’t heard of the latest Rod Liddle scandal. Lucky you. But for those who like to be up to date, here’s an overview.

Liddle, columnist and associate editor of the Spectator, was invited last week (3 December) to a formal Christmas dinner at South College, Durham University, by its principal Professor Tim Luckhurst. I’ve seen the booking info and the students, who had paid £10 to be at the dinner, were not informed on signing up that Liddle would be a guest speaker – although he had written gleefully about the evening and the prospect of meeting some student prostitutes there in his Spectator column on 20 November (more on that in a moment).

Guests were reportedly treated to the kind of cutting-edge analysis for which Liddle is known: for example, joking that there weren’t any sex workers in attendance after all and sounding off about trans rights and the idea of institutional racism. Standard fare for a right-wing columnist giving an after-dinner speech, one might think, but a bit off-putting if what you’ve turned up for is a nice end of term meal with your friends. Unsurprisingly, some students decided they’d rather not listen to this unexpected tirade and walked out before or during it. Others stayed put, but failed to respond with the courtesy usually afforded to speakers at such events.

This disrespect – that is, withholding adoration for speaker no one had asked for or known they would have to listen to – was branded “pathetic” by Luckhurst, who said students “shouldn’t be at university” if they refuse to listen to alternative views. “At South College we value freedom of speech!” he shouted to students (no news yet on what South College thinks about freedom of listening, or how often its principal pays to have his own views challenged). He has since apologised for the “pathetic” comment, but there is a frankly bizarre video of Dorothy Luckhurst, the principal’s wife, calling one student an “arse” – “Arse, arse, arse, arse, arse!” she sings passionately (whatever wine they’re serving at South College, I’d like some). She subsequently tweeted: “Bunch of inadequates thought it was clever to walk out on a speech tonight because they were afraid of what the speaker said.” Protests are planned for later this week calling for Luckhurst’s resignation, or at the least a fuller apology for his and his wife’s behaviour. 

I don’t want to get into an argument about Liddle’s views on colonisation, transphobia or sex work. That he wilfully misinterpreted the support and guidance provided by Durham’s student union (note: the student union, not the university) to students considering taking up sex work as offering “courses in the various forms of harlotry” is not my concern – it’s not my job to teach a 61-year-old how to read. Nor are his views on women (and, lest we forget, underage girls) my concern here. He is free to write what he wants within reason – and, indeed, to speak at any event to which he is invited.

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Rather, what I want to unpack is this definition of free speech through which people are obliged to listen to anyone who demands their attention, while the speaker can cry “snowflakes!” or “cancel culture!” or “wokeism gone mad!” if the audience gets bored and heads to the pub. If Liddle’s little talk had been clearly advertised and students had still chosen to disrupt it or try to prevent it from taking place, there might have been legitimate grounds for talk of silencing. But the right to be listened to by everyone, no matter what, is a new one to me. As far as I’m aware, there’s no requirement to sit through a film you’re not enjoying – so why would we expect the same for a speech you didn’t know was coming at a dinner you paid to attend? Is this a universal obligation, or is it a particular clause relating only to students, who pay £9,250 a year for the privilege of being treated like characters from A Clockwork Orange? And does it only apply to discussions about racism and transphobia, or can it be used for other topics too?

I ask because I have long been working on a presentation all about how wonderful cats are – their innate value to humankind, their lovableness, their intrinsic superiority over all other animals and especially dogs. Controversial, I know, but exactly the kind of provocative, challenging commentary the feckless youth of today would really benefit from. So far, not a single British university – no institution at all, in fact – has invited me to give this talk, paid or unpaid. I can only imagine they are frightened of the potential backlash and are no-platforming me because of their anti-feline bias.

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But now, thanks to Luckhurst and Liddle, I can finally rest easy in the knowledge that there are still bastions of free speech out there who will support my quest to confront young people with my own views – and compel them to pay me for it, with or without their consent. I’ll assume my invitation is in the post.

[see also: Why do students still want Jordan Peterson to tell them how to live?]

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