Going to university can be a tricky situation, socially. Presuming you moved out, you’re probably a few hundred miles away from your best friends, and not everyone has the willpower and physical fortitude to re-enact the famous Proclaimers song. Societies, then, serve a quietly important function in the background of university life, by providing social groups for people with like-minded interests.
If there isn’t a society for that interest, well, you can make your own! And, recently, a lot of people already have; YUSU just ratified over twenty new societies for the new academic year. The newcomers range from “wait, why didn’t we didn’t already have that” (Fashion Society, German and French Societies) to “could be interesting” (Hip Hop Society, American Politics Society) to “societies based on a vicious struggle for power threatened by invasions from across the sea”. That’d be A Society of Ice and Fire, the one dedicated to Game of Thrones (and the accompanying books).
And actually, thinking about it, that description also matches YUUKIP – the York University UK Independence Party. They, too, were ratified this week and managed to claim their own spot on campus with the rest. Hopefully without any Romanians next door to it.
Naturally, complaints soon followed, from a plethora of students who disagree with UKIP’s far-right policies. Though a UKIP branch in York would certainly bring together students with similar interests, opponents feel that the party’s divisive views concerning immigration endanger the unity of the larger university community.
In response, YUSU President Sam Maguire cited University regulations, which unambiguously defend “freedom of speech within the law”. While he denounced the “racist and homophobic” remarks routinely reported from UKIP representatives he – rightfully – admitted the society could not be shut down unless it specifically infringed on YUSU rules.
Compare that decision to the one made by the University of East Anglia. They recently shut down a debate that was set to include UKIP parliamentary candidate Steve Emmens, after more than 1,100 people signed a petition opposing it. The founder of the petition said a UKIP presence on campus threatened their advocacy of “diversity, integration and tolerance”. UKIP itself retaliated, decrying the decision as “the worst kind of political censorship”.
And, perhaps just this once, they’re not wrong.
It’s understandable why groups, both on our campus and East Anglia’s, want to keep UKIP off their campus. Not everyone agrees with their message, particularly on university campuses (those infamous hotbeds of “student lefties”, as UKIP MP Douglas Carswell tweeted). Some might be disappointed that, as an official YUSU-ratified society, YUUKIP could potentially claim money from them for student events. But provided the society itself isn’t spreading hate speech or trying to incite violence, they deserve a platform as much as any other party does.
Besides, when you’re dealing with an organisation whose big draw is saying the unsayable, as the scrappy underdogs speaking the truth against a “Westminster elite” looking to drown them out, to bar them from campus debate entirely just gives them legitimacy. Allowing them to put their policies out in the open gives students and other political societies the chance to argue back as they will – “free speech”, after all, doesn’t protect against disagreement.
So, unlike in East Anglia, YUUKIP’s here to stay, and another voice has been added to the political debate on campus. Unless they start being openly racist on social media. Then they’ll have to join a hockey team.