[W]e don’t half have a militant lot in our beloved SU.
On January 18th 2016, spiked published their annual Free Speech University Rankings. The rankings attract the same predictable reactions from the British press each year—the Telegraph and Spectator are apoplectic about the supposed death of free speech whilst the likes of the Guardian say it’s just those pesky bad opinions being suppressed. In 2016 I was one of the hacks having my say. I’d been appointed Head of Marketing for The Tab Lancaster a couple weeks prior and I’d already made a minor name for myself covering the Gatward saga.
Whilst the rankings as a whole were covered by the national Tab, I felt the need to report on Lancaster’s specific ranking. On the 19th, I did just that.1 Things…escalated. It’s just over two years on, I’ve just read Warwick University Ltd and The Craig Affair and I’m feeling reflective as I approach the end of my time at university. In two posts, I’m going to look back over the whole affair (consequences of which still appear from time to time) and see what went wrong—more importantly, what I could have done better.
In this first part I will do my best to neutrally recap the events in gruesome forensic detail. Caveat emptor—there was doubtless a lot of behind-closed-doors activity that I was not privy to, and that shall not be covered.
Also on the 18th, the Lancaster University LGBTQ+ Association’s
Gender Grammar campaign—intended
to educate people on gender-neutral and trans-friendly language—had begun. Posters appeared across campus with captions like
use gender neutral language and
if in doubt, use . On the 19th, I published the article. I’ll analyse the article content itself in the following post. It will suffice here to say that I used the currently-running campaign in order to make a point about the subjectivity of
offensiveness when dealing with speech. I shared the article, as I always did, on Facebook:
I had some supportive comments from friends and acquaintances. They certainly ranged in tone and level of insight:
The next day, I was mentioned on campus news show Good Morning Lancaster (03:18 in). I barely recognised the argument I (or, at least, someone with practically the same name) was being accused of putting forth, which probably should have been a warning for me.
Recent controversy has arisen in regards to the gender neutral campaign that the LGBTQ+ Society launched this week. The Tab article that had sparked the controversy was written by Ben Goldsworth, who criticised the campaign regarding banning controversial speech.
In the article, Ben thought that this could mean that LGBTQ+ shouldn’t be allowed to campaign or be in any way visible in case they trigger a homophobe, and also stated that gender-neutral campaignerscan’t even get their gendral-neuter pronouns in order.
The same day, the first critical comment appeared under my article share.2 I’d probably had some negative responses in the comments under the article itself by this point,3 but this was the first one that was on my turf. In retrospect, the phrase
I actually agree with some of the points you make…but the bit where you lose me is the gender pronouns bit should have been another red flag. To give past-me credit, however, I’m impressed how well my arguments have remained consistent with my beliefs two years down the line.4
I reiterated that my focus wasn’t on the
Gender Grammar campaign itself, and that
I used [it] because it [was] the most timely…example to use, but I suspect that at this point the (mis)interpretation of the article was probably beyond my abilities to clarify. Meanwhile, staff newsletter subtext5 called the article
a long diatribe bemoaning Lancaster’s , whilst the writer of those words joined the fray in the Facebook comments.
embarrassing record on free speech
Nonetheless, things remained fairly un-heated. I did mention, on the 21st, that there were some
chucklefucks trying to get me VNC’d, but that seems to have been all. I even attempted some limited form of reconciliation whilst sharing an unrelated article on the 20th. Presumably, as that post was set to private, the
small but vocal minority never saw it. The LGBTQ+ Association, for their part, don’t seem to have been too fussed about the article at this point, describing it as
some interesting publicity.
The following week, things kicked up a notch. The CCO: LGBTQ+ at the time sent a letter to the Pendle College JCR Exec., of which I was a member, via our then-VP (Welfare).6 The undated letter stated that
a member of [the] JCR7 wrote an article slandering a campaign the LGBTQ+ association was running [and which] also contained transphobia. The letter went on to state that the CCO, who was also
a trans student and a member of Pendle college, felt that
knowing someone on the JCR for college has such views [made them] feel incredibly uncomfortable and unsafe.
They asked for
the JCR to release a statement on this article giving their stance. We discussed the letter at that week’s JCR Exec. meeting, and then voted on whether to apologise or not. No doubt for a number present the letter was the first they had heard of the article. We voted to not apologise, reasoning that I had written the article independently of my role in the Exec., and if memory serves the VP (Welfare) was the only vote in favour of an apology, though there may have been a couple of abstentions.
On January 27th, the JCR Exec. did make a public statement. The great irony is that, as the Media & Communications Officer, I was responsible for producing and publishing it (hence the use of the same $ \LaTeX $ template as my later, personal statement, which can’t have helped attempts to distance myself from the JCR Exec.). I’m quite certain that I left the wording to the others though.
The statement ended up reiterating the obvious (e.g. stating that the Exec.
in no way support or endorse any act of discrimination) whilst avoiding any mention of me, The Tab or the article and concluding by pointing any concerned individuals to the relevant welfare services on offer. In retrospect, the statement was probably the smartest thing I did during this whole affair. Privately, the then-President of the JCR Exec. sent her own statement to the CCO—I haven’t got a copy of her letter, but I recall it criticising the bullying behaviour of some of the LGBTQ+ Assoc. members towards members of the JCR Exec.
The bucket of petrol
An hour later, I responded personally with a public letter posted to my Facebook Timeline (page 1; page 2). That my statement was not even more inflammatory is something I owe to the then-President and then-VP (Events), amongst others, who told me in no uncertain terms to limit my predilection for being insufferable when in the right. I wasn’t far off in my characterisation of the role of CCO: LGBTQ+, as per the Students’ Union bye-laws (which I almost certainly didn’t consult at the time)—§ 220.127.116.11 stated that the officer must
represent the interests of members and the LGBTQ community through their actions and decisions.
The Association had themselves previously stated that the purpose of the role was
to be a point of contact for anything and everything LGBTQ+ related.8 For my part, I tagged the CCO in the post in the hope of doing more than simply preaching to the choir that was my Facebook friends list. I also emailed a copy to them for good measure. Some debate occurred in the comments. I put myself forward as living up to the beliefs I had expressed previously, stating that
I am happy to present the initial Tab article, along with the above open letter, to anyone to make their own mind up on. [The CCO] has not made her9 letter, and by extension her accusations, public. To me, this suggests an awareness that they are complete tripe and would never hold up under public scrutiny. With little interest in diplomacy, I preened:
Maybe that’s just me.
The CCO blocked me. During the arguments in the comments I declared that
we’re beyond tact now. This was probably not a great approach to commit myself to—when we go beyond tact, disagreements like this spiral downwards into a shit-flinging contest. Regardless, things seemed (as far as I recall) to die down here. I understand that a number of the LGBTQ+ Assoc. members who were also in Pendle College chose to move colleges. My mobile phone number ended up on the Food Standards Agency’s food recall text alert system and the m4m section of Craigslist for the South London area, and I suspect putting it in my smug letterhead had something to do with that. That, however, seemed to be the end of it.
The official complaint
Then, on February 23rd, I received an email from the Students’ Union Complaints Co-ordinator. The CCO had made an official complaint on the 15th (racking my memory, I can’t think of any reason for the almost month-long delay).
As asking for an apology has already been carried out and it escalated the situation rather than resolving it, reads the CCO’s Complaints Form,
the outcome [now] being asked for … is access to further procedure, the disciplinary procedure… Alongside the claims that the
article was transphobic and contained hate speech came new claims that my
…apology [was] also harassment [and] also victim blaming… According to SU Disciplinary Procedure, potential sanctions for me in the event of a ruling in their favour could have included anything from
requirement to make a verbal or written apology to
exclusion from membership of the Students’ Union.
The Complaints Co-ordinator wrote:
As the complaint cites your role as an officer of the Students’ Union, it has been decided that this complaint does require . On the 29th I had an interview with the appointed
independent Investigating Officer and, immediately afterwards, I emailed the Co-ordinator to let him know that I would
…be filing a counter-complaint against [the co-complainants and LGBTQ+ Assoc. Exec.] for their poor handling of this issue, public defamation of myself and Pendle JCR and borderline harassment of some members of that JCR (not just myself). I requested a public statement, but I was merciful—by this point, the LGTBQ+ Assoc. had moved their weekly meet-ups out of Pendle Bar, and I allowed that they would be under no obligation to return there.
It took a few months (and many nagging emails) before the complaint was resolved. On May 12th, the outcome arrived in my inbox. Apparently the delay was due to the Students’ Union having
…approached a couple of external parties to the Students’ Union who agreed to provide us with some legal advice on this matter, which seems today, as it did then, to have been rather excessive. Regardless, the verdict can be viewed here. The Investigating Officer concluded, in regards to the charge of hate speech, that the
…article does not have the intent necessary to be hate speech…However, the language used…does leave it open to interpretation as transphobic.10 He decided to pass this particular buck on
…to the University Dean for consideration.
Two years on11 and with no response from the Deanery as of yet, I don’t know if this ever occurred, if the Dean closed the issue without further consideration, or what. The Investigating Officer also concluded that the complaint had nothing to do with my role on the JCR Exec., and that both of our claims of harassment were without merit. Most interestingly, looking back now, is the final proposed future action:
LUSU Council to review the process concerning the provision of clearer rules of behaviour and responsibilities for part-time officers [to] provide those who believe an officer has contradicted these rules a clearer guide with which to evaluate and articulate their complaint. I do not know if anything ever came of this.
So what were the long-term effects of all this? Well, the LGBTQ+ Assoc. still meet outside of Pendle Bar. Occasionally, my reputation will precede me even now and someone will recognise my name from The Tab—almost invariably, it is this article that they refer to. They presume that I’m
right-wing, whatever that means. Perhaps the biggest consequence, however, was the response when I ran in a by-election for JCR Exec. President, shortly after finally receiving the complaint outcome. Despite it having been almost half a year since the article’s publication, representatives of both the Feminist Society and the LGBTQ+ Association came down to hustings to deliver me an almost 2-hour grilling.
Measured, reasonable questions included things along the lines of
how can you be President if you hate trans people. Tensions rose,
fucks were said (I had a microphone, so I de facto won the shouting match, but I don’t think it was a good look) and I later referred to it as the
Red Hustings. Amongst the event audience, however, it probably won me as much support as it lost me. Ultimately, I lost the race by one vote. This experience led to a more indirect impact more recently when I felt the need to keep the fact that I was romantically involved with one of the candidates for SU President on the down-low, lest it get out and prejudice her campaign.
Nowadays, most of the people involved have graduated and gone out into the big wide world—God only knows how they’re coping in it. This December, I will finally do the same, and all of this will be little more than a footnote of my university experience. At the time, however, it all seemed rather important. I suppose a lot university politics is like that.
This is what happened. In Part 2, I’ll assess what I could have done better.
Update 2020-07-04: Trust me, I know. I review the article itself in part two. ↩︎
The Tab seem to have removed comments since then, and the Wayback Machine provides nothing. ↩︎
Update 2020-07-04: Consistent in the broad strokes, though not articulated with much nuance here. Some of the language, like
transiness, has aged poorly. ↩︎
Update 2020-07-04: Bizarrely enough, the then-VP (Welfare) has somehow become a close friend, which has continued post-uni; we were certainly not pals at this point. ↩︎
Technically correct, as all undergraduate members of a college are members of that college’s JCR, but I presume they were specifically referring to my membership of the Exec. ↩︎
As this post contains the identity of the CCO, have not linked it here. ↩︎
At the time I hadn’t really grokked the idea of gender-neutral pronouns, so whilst I would not do so now I have decided to leave my contemporary, inadvertent misgenderings of the CCO (who preferred
they) in place here for accuracy’s sake. ↩︎
Quite how there could be an offence on my part without the requisite mens rea was not addressed. ↩︎
Update 2020-07-04: Four years on… ↩︎