Core expression

March 22, 2012

On 23 January, a meeting of the Atheism, Secularism and Humanism Society at Queen Mary, University of London called to discuss "Sharia law and human rights" was disrupted before the invited speaker, Anne Marie Waters, was able to begin. An individual entered the meeting and threatened those attending should they say anything he regarded as antithetical to Islam. Queen Mary's security staff quickly attended, followed by the police. The organisers decided to cancel the event.

The incident poses a challenge to the right of members of our university community to hear and express diverse views. Queen Mary has a clear policy that supports freedom of expression: student groups that wish to invite external speakers on to campus are required to notify Student and Campus Services, which as necessary establish that those proposed have not previously engaged in illegal activity. When staff are uncertain, I as principal have the final say.

This approach recognises that our commitment to freedom of speech is tested not simply by accommodating mildly controversial opinions but also by tolerating views that may be found distasteful. Our adherence to these principles has been tested on several occasions: for example, we have allowed meetings addressed by those with radical, faith-based views that excite strong reaction.

In the case of the meeting of the Atheism, Secularism and Humanism Society, the correct procedure was followed by the organisers and no grounds for concern over the speaker were identified. With hindsight, we might have recognised the potential for disruption and measured the need for security accordingly - this is a lesson learned. What the speaker and the organisers were doing was exercising their freedom of expression in accordance with the principles and practices outlined above. That they were intimidated into abandoning that right is unacceptable.

Waters has since returned to Queen Mary - invited to speak again, at an event that passed without incident, on 14 March. By facilitating that event and others like it, we are allowing and promoting freedom of expression within the law. Furthermore, we are implicitly attributing to our university community the intelligence and powers of discrimination to judge for themselves the merits or otherwise of the opinions and beliefs presented to them.

The message from this institution is clear, and I hope will be reinforced by others: our commitment to freedom of expression will be evident not only in allowing the expression of diverse views but also by ensuring that no group or individual can deny others the opportunity to express and argue the merits of their views. That most fundamental right - and a robust defence of it - must surely sit at the core of what defines a university.

Simon Gaskell, Principal, Queen Mary, University of London

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