University of Durham students who walked out before a speech by Rod Liddle say the protest was in response to learning the Spectator editor once accepted a police caution for assaulting his pregnant partner.
Durham students were not told in advance that Liddle would be making an after-dinner speech at the South College Christmas formal dinner on 4 December, and say that when his speech was announced by principal Professor Tim Luckhurst, a few people recognised Liddle’s name.
“So we decided to look him up to see why and read his Wikipedia article on all of his controversial opinions, as well as a lot of his news articles published himself,” PinkNews heard from Durham student Amy* (not her real name), who was at the dinner and was one of the students who walked out before Rod Liddle spoke.
“We couldn’t believe that someone who had [been cautioned for assaulting] his pregnant partner and had opinions against [the] majority of the marginalised groups in the room would be allowed to have a platform at college,” Amy added. Her account of what led to the students walking out has been corroborated by other students to PinkNews.
Liddle, 62, received a police caution for common assault in 2005 after being arrested for allegedly punching his pregnant girlfriend, Alicia Monckton, on the night of the general election. Though he accepted the caution, he later denied the assault.
At Durham’s South College on 4 December, Liddle opened his speech by making a joke about sex workers, before saying: “A person with an X and a Y chromosome, that has a long, dangling penis, is scientifically a man, and that is pretty much, scientifically, the end of the story.”
Liddle went on to tell Durham students that colonialism “is not remotely the major cause of Africa’s problems” and that the “educational underachievement” of Black students is “nothing to do with institutional or structural racism”. He also criticised single parents, saying that the children of single mothers should be “taken by the state”.
Durham students on Rod Liddle dinner invite: ‘A formal is not an opportunity for debate’
More than a dozen students left before Rod Liddle spoke and several more walked out during his speech.
Professor Tim Luckhurst, a long-time friend of Liddle’s who had invited him to make the speech, shouted “pathetic” as students left and he and his wife, Dorothy, were later filmed mocking students and calling them “arses” for leaving.
In videos shared on social media, Luckhurst can be heard defending Liddle to students after his speech by saying “Rod is a humorist”. He later apologised, and has now been barred from his duties by Durham university pending an investigation.
Durham student Amy told PinkNews that the only person who has previously been allowed to speak at a formal college dinner was Richard Holden, the Tory MP. “For some students this was their first ‘Christmas’ in the UK and it would be the last time we could sit together and celebrate as a college this year,” she said.
She continued: “I think that some controversial debates would be more appropriate at the Durham Union or a paid seminar, but not this one – I do not believe that it had any place on campus.
“A formal does not offer opportunity for debate. You sit there and listen to the speaker, and then the formal wraps up, so for some members of college to hear such views from a speaker and then not have an opportunity to counter anything is incredibly infuriating.”
If I get this correctly, this is the wife of the principal of a college at Durham university vs. students objecting to an unannounced speech by Rod Liddle where he made a number of racist and transphobic comments. https://t.co/S4v4HGySa1
— alexandre afonso (@alexandreafonso) December 6, 2021
Liddle’s speech has been called “transphobic and racist” by several student societies, including the working class students association and the Intersectional Feminist Society, which also wrote an open letter demanding that Luckhurst apologise “for inviting an inappropriate speaker and proceeding to taunt students, showing a complete disregard for student welfare”.
Another Durham student who studies at South College and was at the formal Christmas dinner on 4 December wrote that Liddle’s speech “entailed transphobic, classist, and racist remarks that caused outrage among its captive audience”.
“Tim [Luckhurst] criticised the dozen students who walked out during Liddle’s speech, suggesting that their actions were a regressive demonstration of ‘cancel culture’,” the student wrote.
“In a display of great hypocrisy, Luckhurst then addressed the multitude of students who verbally rebutted Liddle’s claims. He defended Liddle’s speech as ‘freedom of expression’ and ‘humorous’, before claiming, ‘I’m going to go back and have a drink’ instead of listening to and engaging with student’s criticisms.”
Lukchurst “rightfully acknowledges” the right to free speech, the student continued, while “neglecting to consider” Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, “which states that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of expression’ whilst importantly acknowledging that the freedom is subject to ‘formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties […] in the interests of the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others’.”
Peaceful protest for ‘safer, more inclusive’ Durham university
A peaceful protest “for a safer, more inclusive Durham University” at the South College campus is planned for this afternoon, following Rod Liddle’s speech.
On social media, protest organisers said: “We want to be clear: This is not a debate about freedom of speech”.
In a protest flyer shared online, the students said: “This is a protest about staff misconduct and a failure of safeguarding procedures.”
Amy told PinkNews: “We believe that Tim and Dot’s behaviour after the formal fall short from the standard we expect of a senior member of staff at the University. Nobody should be told that they do not belong at university or have profanity aimed at them.
“In our South College handbook, we have to take responsibility for any guests we have on-site and their actions and I’m shocked to see that this courtesy does not extend to staff too. I should not be labelled in a group of ‘pathetic’ ‘inadequates’ simply for choosing not to listen to a surprise speech which to no one’s surprise, later turned out to divide and upset my community.”
PinkNews has contacted representatives for Rod Liddle and Tim Luckhurst for comment on the issues in this story.