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Free speech event cancelled following 'security concerns'

The event, hosted by the Free Speech Society, was cancelled due to fears over public safety, with the event hosting an speaker accused of Islamophobia.

By Maddy Russell, Second Year Politics & International Relations and Scarlett Sherriff, Fourth Year French & Spanish

A Bristol Free Speech event accused of 'hosting islamophobic rhetoric' was cancelled following security concerns over planned protest last night.

Bristol Free Speech Society had planned to host Emma Fox from the Henry Jackson Society think tank. Yesterday, a few hours before the even was due to start, the SU and University released a joint statement postponing the event.

The statement outlined the University’s reasons for postponing the event: 'Our security services, in consultation with the police, are concerned about their ability to keep attendees, the University community and the public safe.

'The SU has therefore recommended that the event be postponed. The University agrees, and so the decision to postpone has been communicated to the Freedom of Speech Society.'

Postponing the event is said to allow time to find ‘a suitably experienced speaker with an opposing view’ to join the event. The SU has also requested that an independent chairperson is appointed.

The Henry Jackson Society responded with this statement.

The move was in response to an open letter, signed by over 400 students and student leaders across the UK, accusing the Free Speech Society of inviting an allegedly Islamophobic speaker. The letter said this was 'deeply troubling' and 'insensitive' in light of the recent shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand.

A protest was set to take place outside the Queen’s Building, where the event was due to start.

Bristol Islamic Society praised the decision. 'They [the University and SU] have heard our concerns and agree that the format of the event and its time was as unacceptable as we found it', a spokesperson said.

'They have assured us that we will be at the forefront of the process of ensuring this speaker fairly represents us and Islam, and we hope to work with them and a wide range of groups such as the BME network and cultural societies.'

The society added that they will protest again if the postponed event is not 'satisfactory'.

Despite the recommendations from the University and SU, the originally planned discussion by Fox was later live streamed on Facebook by the Henry Jackson Society.

This decision by the Society has been met with opposition from SU Officer Sally Patterson. She has expressed her frustration and anger that the event went ahead on livestream, calling it 'irresponsible and immoral to ignore instructions and carry on anyway'.

Patterson added that she would be in conversation with the University 'about next steps and repercussions'.

'We believe that the question we asked in our first event of this term, 'Is there a problem with Free Speech on University campuses,' has been clearly answered: yes.'

The Free Speech Society expressed their regret at the event’s postponement, arguing that there is a free speech problem on campus. A spokesperson said: 'We believe that the question we asked in our first event of this term, 'Is there a problem with Free Speech on University campuses,' has been clearly answered: yes.

'We would like to apologise to anyone who was looking forward to this event, and we ourselves are deeply disheartened by the University’s last-minute decision.

'Unfortunately, it is a common tactic by those who oppose free expression of ideas to characterise ideas they disagree with as hateful. The recent chain of events is a good example of this.'

Despite the cancellation of the talk, the society expressed their commitment to hosting the same event in the same format on campus in the near future.

The society said: 'Given that yesterday's event was not hosted by us, we will be hosting the speaker in the near future instead of the event that was planned.'

Featured image: Cameron Scheijde / Epigram

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