Rod Liddle ‘transphobia’ row proves students are being sacrificed on the altar of free speech

Durham University students protest after walking out of a Rod Liddle speech

Theo Burman is news editor at Palatinate, the award-winning student newspaper at Durham University.

He writes for PinkNews about the now-notorious speech by Rod Liddle described as “racist” and “transphobic”, and the student protests that followed.

On 3 December, students at Durham University’s South College were having Christmas dinner when Rod Liddle, guest of college principal Tim Luckhurst, stood up to give a speech rife with racism and transphobia.

While trying to enjoy their meal, students were forced to listen to his rant about “long dangling penises” being the mark of masculinity, and the suggestion that discrimination could not account for educational disparities between races.

Students were not told in advance that Liddle would be speaking, or even attending the dinner, and his last name was reportedly omitted from the seating plan. Small wonder, then, that so many students walked out of the meal when he started to talk.

When the national press caught up with the story, they were quick to brand these students, and the community that rose up to defend them, as a “woke mob“. But who is being more ideological in this situation: the students who just wanted to enjoy their meal, or the adults who prioritised their parade of commitment to free speech over the wellbeing of students they were responsible for?

At the heart of the protest that followed was the fact that South College had a principal who would sacrifice their concerns on the altar of free speech.

For removing themselves from a situation they preferred not to be in, these students were called “pathetic”. In exchanges after the meal, Luckhurst told students they “shouldn’t be at university” because they weren’t willing to listen to what Liddle had to say.

Additionally, Luckhurst’s wife, Dorothy, taunted the students, repeatedly calling them “arses” and later “inadequate” on Twitter.

Walking through the college on the way to the protest, there was more anger towards Luckhurst than towards Liddle. Liddle demanded an apology from Durham for how he was treated, but hearing students speak at the protest, it became clear who the real victims were. The trans students living at South College had someone invited into their home and proclaim, unchallenged, that they did not exist. The students who were raised by single parents had to hear Liddle say they should have been forced into adoption. And when they went to the person whose job it is to stand up for them, they found Liddle’s former roommate.

The college principal should be someone any student can talk to, but South College students were met with indifference and jeers.

National coverage has misconstrued this as the latest conflict in the free speech culture war, drawing comparisons to the deplatforming of Amber Rudd.

This is a false equivalency. Formals at Durham are not an established place of discourse by any means; in my three years here, I have never once been accosted by someone from the high table in the way the students at South College were. In their instinctive reaction to uphold the bastion of what they think is free speech, activists have found themselves defending the time-honoured tradition of talking about politics over Christmas dinner, something that has never been a bad idea ever, apparently.

Obviously, people who prioritise free speech have a place at universities, but those are not the right priorities for a college principal to have, because it is a role with a duty of care.

The paternalistic notion that a college principal has a responsibility to expose students to uncomfortable ideas should never be given more weight than the students who live under them. In the same way you’d be an awful therapist if you exercised your freedom of speech to laugh at your patients’ choices and beliefs, we must acknowledge that pastoral care comes with responsibilities and restrictions that transcend your own ideology.

At time of writing, more than 20 articles in national outlets have covered the incident and the protest that came after it.

Liddle and Luckhurst have been approached by every one of these, and Rod has had his call for an apology broadcast to the nation.

Durham University students, meanwhile, huddled together on a cold day, offering support to members of our community, many of whom arrived at university for the first time this term.

It’s clear to me who the mob really is. There are ideologues in the free speech debate, but it’s not the students.