A university in London has canceled a comedy show by feminist stand-up Kate Smurthwaite telling her she’s not feminist enough.
Goldsmiths University was to be the last stop on Smurthwaite’s tour, “Lefty Cock Womble,” on the topic of free speech. A British comedy website reported that the show was called off because event organizers had been cowed by feminist students who disagreed with Smurthwaite’s views on prostitution and threatened protests.
Plenty of social media users rushed to Smurthwaite’s defense, although others accused her of working the media to generate publicity when the university gave unflattering statements to the press. Goldsmiths’ Comedy Society issued a public statement saying they had planned “to go ahead with the gig” until Smurthwaite told them she’d heard mutterings about protests on social media 24 hours before. “Up to this point we had only sold 8 tickets so I decided to pull the plug,” the president said.
Smurthwaite told the Daily Beast that the comedy society was inventing excuses to cancel the show after admitting to her that they were terrified of potential protests. “After telling me they were worried about security over a sex industry protest, they switched to saying they were worried about complaints about my views on religion and then tried to undermine my professional credibility by blaming me in the press and suggesting my work was unpopular.”
Smurthwaite has published these contradictory exchanges between her and an event organizer, who assured her that ticket sales weren't important and that at least 50 students would show up on the night of the event. The event organizer also alerted her that 50 members of the Goldsmiths' Feminist Society who were offended by the content of her comedy had voted on whether she should be allowed to perform at the university (70 percent voted in her favor).
According to Smurthwaite, organizers told her that similar events on campus had previously attracted hundreds of people, none of whom booked in advance. And since her show was organized by the Goldsmiths’ Comedy and Feminist Societies, whose members could attend for free, the comedian didn’t expect that numbers would be an issue.
Indeed, numbers weren’t an issue in the end. It was Smurthwaite’s political views that ultimately prevented her from having a stage at Goldsmiths.
“They should have let me know as soon as they knew about opposition to the show. Plus they should have made the reasons for the decision [to cancel it] clear to me and stuck by them,” she said.
Smurthwaite, who is a prominent pro-choice activist, also notes that she has never run into trouble with feminist groups on campuses before. "I've had angry religious people disrupt my show about evolution and insist that God made the world. That's pretty normal for me."
The cancellation of Smurthwaite’s show alone would not be especially newsworthy, but it follows a string of similar incidents on British campuses in the last year that have arguably imperiled free speech.
Last spring, the University College London students’ union (UCLU) banned a Nietzsche reading club, arguing that discussing the work of right-wing philosophers promotes a “far-right and fascist ideology” and thus threatens the “safety of the UCL student body.” (Apparently the UCLU didn’t see the irony of using anti-fascist rhetoric to justify banning a book club.)
In October 2014, Cardiff University students petitioned a performance by the tastelessly misogynistic comedian Daniel O’Reilly, known as Dapper Laughs, whose ITV show was pulled the next month And in November, a feminist student union at Oxford University effectively cancelled a debate on abortion organized by a campus pro-life group.
It's worth mentioning that many universities in the U.K. have adopted the National Union of Students’ “safe space” policy, described by the University of Bristol students’ union as an effort to foster “an accessible environment in which every student feels comfortable, safe and able to get involved in all aspects of the organization free from intimidation or judgment...free from having one’s culture and beliefs questioned.”
This isn't to say that most university students in the U.K. support censorship to promote a "safe space" campus, but student groups likely feel pressure to abide by union guidelines.
The "safe space" policy may seem well-intentioned, but critics have denounced it as an anti-intellectual policy designed to protect students from extremist views in society.
After all, universities are institutions of higher learning where students should be free to debate ideas that they’ll confront in the real world, not “safe spaces” to protect students from potentially dangerous ideas.
Smurthwaite, who will not be altering her show's content in the coming months, agrees.
“Offensive is never the right line to draw on free speech,” she says. “Not that free speech is a simple concept. We should be asking questions about the kinds of speech we want on stage, in newspaper, on TV. Questions like, ‘Does this speech promote an unfair negative stereotype about a disadvantaged group?’ ‘Does this speech contain statements that mislead about the truth?’”
But even then, she concludes: “We shouldn't be banning such language. We should be airing a representative amount of it...in a way that ensures it is challenged and tested against other viewpoints.