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Student union stops Catholic Society talk

Concerns about freedom of speech at UCL have arisen following the talk's cancellation (PA)

The student union at University College London (UCL) cancelled a scheduled talk by a Catholic apologist last week, prompting concerns about freedom of speech on campus.

Union officials said the talk could not go ahead because protocol had not been followed. But one of the union’s officials had earlier called for students to disrupt the event, calling it “bigoted”.

UCL’s Catholic Society had invited Catholic apologist Peter D Williams to deliver a talk on “defending our right to have our own view on homosexuality”.

Mr Williams was preparing to address a busy room of students when he was approached by a representative of the Catholic Society and the student union and told he could not give a talk because the Catholic Society had failed to submit a speaker approval form.

Comments written by students on social networking websites since the cancellation have provoked concerns about freedom of speech.

Hannah Webb, the external affairs and campaigns officer for the student union, wrote on Facebook about the talk: “This was cancelled!” After she was asked how, Miss Webb replied that “their speaker hadn’t been approved so fairly easily”.

Miss Webb added that the event had been “flagged up” beforehand and “a number of us were alarmed that such a speaker had been allowed to go through the external vetting process”.

Beth Sutton, the student union’s Women’s Officer, also wrote on Twitter: “We managed to stop it [the talk] because union protocol wasn’t followed.”

Mr Williams responded on Twitter and asked if Miss Sutton would have been so concerned about protocol were it another event. She replied she would be equally concerned for events “on the boundaries of what UCLU allows and requires discussion”.

Miss Sutton had also made a Twitter appeal to her followers prior to the talk asking them to disrupt the “bigoted homophobic” event.

Mr Williams said that he was worried about the future of Catholic apologetics on campus. He said: “This experience makes me concerned for the ability of Catholic apologists and speakers to talk on university campuses.

“If student unions will ban a presentation of Catholic teaching on the specious grounds that it is ‘homophobic’ or ‘hate speech’, or merely because it might make some people feel ‘unsafe’, then this will constitute an effective censoring of the presentation of Catholic teaching (at least on sexual ethics and sexuality) in any student atmosphere.

“This is a grossly anti-intellectual betrayal of the very mission of a student union, not to mention condescending to the student body, and especially same-sex attracted people. It is also brought about by a worrying form of ideological bigotry, that cannot imagine how someone could disagree with a permissive view on sex and sexuality without being motivated by prejudice.”

Mr Williams said he was still prepared to deliver the talk if the event was re-scheduled, “if only so that I could have an opportunity to explain the life-giving teaching of the Church, and why it is the most rational and humane perspective. Particularly, I would want to show that, so far from being hateful of people who experience same-sex attraction, the Catholic Church insists that they ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity’.”

Mr Williams concluded: “Catholics should learn from my experience how necessary it is for all of us to know, and to be able to explain to our non-Catholic neighbours, the difficult teachings of the Church. Not only that, but Catholic students need to appreciate how necessary it is for them, if they cherish their freedom of speech on campus, to get involved in student politics with other like-minded students .”

Student union officials were unavailable for comment.