The Politics of Free Speech

Following the Jenny Tonge event, some members of York PEN have been engaged in heated discussion and debate about the organisation and write up of the talk. It is felt that the context of the event significantly overshadowed the impact of its content, and this has become a point of contention worthy of analysis. 

Although we were aware that Tonge had made controversial comments preceding our invitation, we had not anticipated the controversy that holding this event would provoke both for and within our own institution. This was particularly unexpected given that the focus of the talk was not about Israel, but rather the political response to and consequences of Tonge’s statements. The group was informed that there was a degree of external criticism regarding the University’s agreement to run this talk. Following this, a change was made to the format from an open lecture to a question and answer session, followed by a short open forum. The format change suited the time constraints of the speaker, and helped the event to remain on topic. It did, however, create some disagreement within York PEN, as it was seen by some students as contrary to the group’s focus on freedom of speech.

While providing a useful method for teasing out the views and experiences of an active politician and member of the Lords, the structural change of the talk raised interesting queries about freedom of expression within and surrounding the University as an institution. The difficulties encountered in the build up to what proved to be a calm and uneventful event point towards various complex issues, and also provide insights into the organisational processes behind public university events. Over the past week, these have sparked lively intellectual debate among the members of York PEN, which we hope will continue to be discussed on this forum. Concerns voiced so far include: 

– How much sacrifice and/or compromise are acceptable to allow a potentially difficult event to go ahead?
– To what extent should the necessity of financial backing affect a group’s autonomy in the hosting of an event?
– How far does the university have a responsibility to provide a space for potentially controversial discussions?
– How far should external criticism influence internal processes within the university?
– How does academic debate intersect with the realities of politics?

We would encourage other members of York PEN to offer their responses to these questions and any other issues or concerns raised by the event.

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