Durham debate on Gaza shut down by protestors

Durham University has allowed protesters to prevent a debate on the Israel-Palestine conflict from going ahead. 

Durham University’s Durham Union Society (DUS) organised a debate to take place on 7th June on the motion This House Believes Palestinian Leadership is the Biggest Barrier to Peace. The debate was to have three “pro-Israel” and three “pro-Palestine” speakers – including a Durham student who had been involved in the pro-Palestinian encampment on the university’s Palace Green. 

On 6th June, Durham Students for Palestine called on their supporters to protest outside the university’s Pemberton building, where the event was to be held. On the 7th, before the debate was to take place, protesters surrounded the building, and blocked the entrances.  

University security provided for the event did not prevent protesters from blocking the entrances to the building. 

The police had expected that the protest might threaten security and two police officers were in attendance. The police could have dispersed the protesters blocking the entrances to the building, thus enabling the event to take place, but they required the university’s permission to do so. DUS reports that the police also advised that were the event to take place, they could not guarantee the safety of the attendees. The university refused permission for the police to disperse protesters and cancelled the event.  

The university has stated that considerations of safety were the reason for the event’s cancellation. This obscures the university’s central failure: to take action, prior to the event, to prevent protesters from forcing cancellation by threatening “safety”. DUS reports that the university informed them, and therefore knew, prior to the protest, that protesters would attempt to block entrances, to prevent the debate from taking place. 

The Office for Students’ proposed guidance on freedom of speech states that universities are likely to have a legal duty to provide adequate security arrangements when there is a threat to lawful events going ahead (Example 25). 

The university’s statement on the events of the 7th July is highly misleading and, in parts, false. It states, for instance, that the university “curtail[ed]” the debate after it had begun. The debate did not begin. Apart from a small number of DUS committee members who arrived before the debate to make preparations, no attendees were able to enter the building.  

The statement also claims that the decision to cancel the event was based on “emerging intelligence” about a “new risk to public safety”. This directly contradicts DUS’ claim that the university knew and advised them that protesters would attempt to block the entrances to the event.  

The statement makes no mention of the fact that protesters blocked the entrances to the debate. It does, however, state that the university is undertaking a “full review” of the behaviours of the protesters, and that it is “critical” that protests do not amount to “harassment or intimidation”. 

The university has offered to work with DUS to enable the debate to take place in future. However, freedom to speak when protesters allow it, is not freedom of speech. 

Durham University has failed to protect freedom of speech. It has not acknowledged that it has failed to protect freedom of speech. Indeed, the university’s statement appears to be a deliberate attempt to conceal the university’s failure.