Since the leaked announcement and subsequent event cancellation there has been significant debate on campus and on the Facebook page Overheard at Royal Holloway University.
The debate has often been pointed and lively with students from both sides of the argument, proponents of ‘No Platform’ and those of unadulterated ‘Free Speech’ weighing in. The main thread of the debate is this; does allowing Ms. Hopkins onto campus encourage healthy debate or does it create an unsafe and intimidating environment for the student body which is open and diverse?
Both sides have been argued passionately, which, at face value, is good as it has taken a controversy of this magnitude to pull Royal Holloway out of the political apathy that the student body was previously languishing in. However, the debate has shown a more sinister side to student politics with vicious attacks being made by Ms. Hopkins herself, including transphobic comments made. This type of attack is not unexpected from Ms. Hopkins, given her previous history of controversy. What is more concerning is that her style of comment is being mimicked or replicated by students on social media levelling personal attacks at one another on both sides of the debate.
This is a worrying development as it suggests an underlying schism which already existed among the politically motivated at the university is now coming to a bitter head with some even accusing others of hate speech. This is what has prompted the latest statement from the Students’ Union in which they remind students that “Just because you’re posting something online, doesn’t mean you should forget that it might have a real impact on someone.” One would argue that at a university ranked in the Top 20 in the country this is a reminder that really should not have to be given. Constructive debate is always necessary to uphold a marketplace of ideas and views but the personal attacks are scarily reminiscent of populist politics that has been at the forefront of the international political agenda in recent years.
There is no doubt that the latest announcement from the Students’ Union of the upcoming referendum will cause a stir on campus. In making such an announcement the Students’ Union not only hopes to engage the student body with the political process on campus but also to draw the line between hate speech and free speech once and for all. As the announcement points out “free speech does not involve giving everyone and anyone a platform, where Union resources are required to enable it”. The Students’ Union say that “This will be your opportunity to discuss, debate and decide” but at the moment it is unclear as to what form that engagement might take. The Students’ Union may host a forum or debate for students to voice their concerns and opinions in an appropriate and meaningful way. Either way, the date of the referendum and any events surrounding it is yet to be confirmed by the Students’ Union as they say that they will be “publishing details next week”. Hopefully, given the controversy, it will mean that these events, should any go ahead, will be highly attended and that there is a high turnout in the subsequent referendum.
What is clear is that students are passionate about this issue. Undoubtedly, being outspoken in your views and standing up for what you believe in is an important trait. We must all remember that whatever side of the argument we fall is that everybody is entitled to a valid opinion and sometimes separating people from their politics is just as important as debating opinions. It is unclear which side of the vote the Royal Holloway Students will fall on; hopefully this level of political engagement remains in a measured and considered way.