Contributed by Ronnie Rowlands.
Readers of subtext will have been pleased to learn that Lancaster University is currently enjoying a flurry of coverage in the national press. Has Cary Cooper received another knighthood? Did someone devise a formula for the perfect twerk?
‘Students face probe over t-shirts daubed with swastikas.’
As reported by the BBC, Independent, Sun, Daily Mail, Newsbeat and Lancaster Guardian, Lancaster University Snow Sports (LUSS) was investigated by the Students’ Union (LUSU), after photographs emerged of their members partying at the Sugarhouse wearing T-shirts covered in swastikas, far-right slogans, and shock humour: ‘Gary Glitter was innocent’, ‘Free Tommy Robinson’, ‘Sandyhook woz bantz’, ‘I’ve got muscles cus dad raped me’, and various assorted ‘edginess’.
One member of LUSU’s Code of Conduct panel, Black & Minority Ethnic Officer Chloe Long, grew frustrated with the time it was taking for them to reach an agreement, as well as the growing probability that a ‘soft sanction’ would be imposed, and posted the photographs (which had been removed from the Sugarhouse’s Facebook page) online, denouncing them as hate speech and deriding LUSU for not taking a firmer stance against the activities.
Within 48 hours, Long was suspended from her role and is now the subject of an investigation by LUSU for breaching the Code of Conduct, endangering an investigation, and leaking confidential information.
Factions quickly formed as debates erupted on many of Lancaster’s online spaces. Dividing lines were drawn roughly between: 1) people who felt that LUSU and the University management didn’t care about hate speech, were utterly ineffectual in tackling it, and seemed more upset at the lack of publicity and more interested in punishing the officer responsible for going public; and 2) people who felt that this was all a publicity stunt, heaping unmanageable culpability on the shoulders of LUSU and making a mountain out of a molehill.
As expected, the Free Speech Bores – you know the ones, the people who want Nazis to have free speech so they can debate them, but never actually debate them – were quick to wade in by accusing LUSU of Orwellian tyranny for suspending the society and investigating the claims.
However, since this has nothing to do with free speech whatsoever, we can dismiss this as the customary anal wind from the usual tedious suspects, and delve into the actual questions, untruths, and scandal of this story…
The information about LUSU’s investigation into LUSS was made public because it was felt that the sanctions would be inadequate. Looking at LUSU’s past record on tackling hateful speech, it’s easy to understand why.
Throughout 2017/18, subtext documented the behaviour of an extremist right wing group on campus that was vying to attain official society status and affiliation to LUSU (see our year-end fascism roundup at http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/subtext/2018/09/13/fascism-on-campus/ and subtext 182 http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/subtext/2018/11/08/shredded-posters-make-good-snowflakes/). The group’s Facebook page regularly posts fascist philosophy, while its members openly express far right wing and oppressive beliefs in person and online, and have disrupted seminars and public events by rattling off half-baked fascist viewpoints and bad faith questions at tutors, speakers, and peers.
As the LUSU societies committee was struggling to agree whether or not to fund avowed fascists (!), the LUSU Executive of elected, paid full-time officers decided to speed things up by approving their incorporation, with a number of two-bit toothless caveats (see subtext 176 http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/subtext/2018/04/26/sufferin-succofash/) thrown into the mix. Of course, this decision was quickly overturned by a senior member of LUSU staff, as behind the scenes the University was sharing information about the group with the police (who in turn sought guidance from the Counter Terrorism Branch and the CPS). Ultimately, LUSU rejected the group’s application, and while this was a good outcome, it took many months to come about, LUSU never ever publicly condemned their activities and rhetoric, and generally didn’t tell them to ‘f*ck off’ nearly as hard as they could have.
With that track record, and the recent Code of Conduct panel seemingly leaning towards quietly sending LUSS on its way with a clip round the ear, one can see the value in lighting a bomb under LUSU to wake them up a bit. LUSU’s slowness to act is still an issue – as they themselves admitted in a public statement, the panel had convened twice without coming to a decision on sanctions, and was due to meet a third time before BME officer Chloe Long decided to go public with the evidence.
By contrast, LUSU was far faster to action when dealing with Ms Long. The investigation into LUSS lasted ten days, with a gap of nearly two weeks between the end of the investigation and the meeting of the Code of Conduct panel. subtext understands that Ms Long received notice of her hearing date, 20 November, within a day of her suspension. Certainly, being seen to act more efficiently in an investigation of a whistleblower, than into the original issue, isn’t a good look. It appears that Ms Long declined to attend her hearing.
The sanctions themselves seem, at first glance, to be proportionate. The society will be placed ‘on probation’ for a period of two years, during which time they will also have to attend various equality training sessions, and submit notice of future socials. They will also not be permitted to run events that aren’t training based… for five weeks.
But on closer inspection these are almost as feeble as those proposed for the campus fascists. The club will have to apologise publicly, which is fair enough, although we’ve yet to hear it – we also wonder if the rumours are true that the group is receiving staff support to put together their statement. Interestingly, their next event, a trip to Val d’Isere on 14 December, inhabits something of a legal grey area. On the one hand, it promises ‘loose activities, shenanigans and mental nights out’, ‘ludicrous themes’, a ‘festival night’ and a ‘pool party with a bar and DJ’. We can’t imagine anything untoward happening there. On the other, it does also offer ‘beginner and intermediate lessons.’ What a quandary!
What’s interesting is that LUSU has, regardless of how appropriate (or not) the sanctions are, been harsher than it was initially planning to be after a public backlash, and this raises a question: was the investigation prejudiced by the court of public opinion? Who knows. The LUSS executive still should probably have been hung out to dry, as we’ll get to below.
While the SU could have shaken a leg and done a bit more to show that it doesn’t take hate speech lying down – especially in light of its performance last year – there is also no denying that blaming them for absolutely everything that took place on the t-shirt social is an easy get out. People have tried to hold the Sugarhouse staff accountable for allowing this sort of rhetoric into the venue in the first place. This is less than cast-iron for a number of reasons, the main one being that it’s still unclear whether the t-shirts were graffitied before or after they’d got in to the Sugarhouse. But even if they did queue up with those slogans written on them, it may not be reasonable to expect staff to closely inspect clothing which may have been covered at the time of entry and then was displayed in a busy nightclub.
It may also be difficult to establish the intent of the people wearing the shirts. The whole point of a white t-shirt social is to invite OTHERS to daub you with obscenities, and you can imagine that a drunk and bewildered fresher on their first social could use this to distance themselves from the slogans by claiming that they weren’t their views, that they were too drunk to know what was being written on them, and that they don’t remember who wrote what, ‘honest guv’. But there is likely to be overlap between those that wore the t-shirts and those that wrote on them. We can say for certain that SOME of the people at the event wrote these slogans, and all of them must have known they would be viewed by sober people as either racist or misogynist or condoning paedophilia. It’s unlikely that the identities of those writing them will ever be known.
There can be no sympathy for the LUSS executive, who, if they had the brains of a centipede, would have briefed their members against walking into a public place with antisemitic, racist, misogynist and paedophilic slogans smeared on their shirts, and made sure someone was on sober duty to keep things in check. It is the club’s executive that bears the most responsibility, which makes it all the more baffling that LUSU has allowed the existing executive to continue running the show.
This incident has at least provided an opportunity for LUSU and the Sugarhouse to develop a policy of checking what sort of materials people are bringing into their venue.
A great deal of the blame for this incident has been apportioned to the senior management. Lancaster UCU recently wrote publicly to the Vice-Chancellor, demanding to know why LUSU was investigating the incident (which was perpetrated by their members in their venue and photographed by their photographers), and not the University itself. As it turns out, the top table has been attentive to the case, and LUSU has now passed the case file over to the University Deanery to deal with. UCU remains unhappy, and accuses the University of shirking its responsibilities.
Behind the scenes, the University has quite rigorously pursued allegations of hate speech on campus, having referred the hijacking of Ruth Wodak’s public lecture to the police, who worked in collaboration with the CPS and the Counter Terrorism Branch to reach a conclusion. The Vice-Chancellor cannot be blamed for the decision not to proceed with this case, nor can he be expected to go on Twitter and name and shame his students (at least, not before the University Deanery has finished deliberating). That’s not to say that proactivity isn’t sorely lacking in the University’s internal and external communications – aside from a few assurances to the national press, they could do more to placate and assure the community when something like this happens, rather than waiting for the UCU to demand answers. If you’re a Jewish student on a night out and you see an antisemitic slogan written on someone’s shirt, you’re not going to stop and think ‘no biggie, Lancaster has a commitment to the Race Equality Charter!’ It also wouldn’t do us much harm to publicly emphasise our support of equality and opposition to fascism and extremism, what with our public image currently painting a slightly different picture. After all, however much the free speech bores emphasise that no-one present at the Sugarhouse that night complained about what the LUSS members were wearing, the reaction from (mostly) white (mostly) men to the online dissent from women and BAME students gives you an idea as to why.
While it is perhaps unlikely that this will end up being treated as a crime, one hopes that the University Deanery takes a broad-minded, moral approach to its deliberations with case, and considers not only the reputation of the University but the impact this has had on minority groups among its membership.
SNOW END IN SIGHT
This is not a lone incident. Footage has surfaced of another (allegedly) recent social, where students in the shirts of a specific college were filmed in the Sugarhouse adorned with bulletins like (apologies to those who don’t like reading this stuff): ‘F*ck the Jews’, ‘I watch nugget porn’, ‘Saville (sic) is innocent’, ’96 wasn’t enough’ (yeah, try wearing that at The Sandon), and ‘Consent is overrated’.
Clearly we need to bring this to a stop. Prevention, education and the public, institutional denunciation of hateful ideologies are the best solutions. If nothing else, this sorry affair will surely encourage society executives to know how to avoid being publicly humiliated, and venue staff to know what to look out for when people show up with their clothes covered in ink. Until then we can only hope that people try to understand the isolating impact that such behaviour has on the targets of hate speech.