Following the postponing of a political discussion featuring speakers from Ukip, an online attack has been launched on the student union’s Postgraduate Education Officer, Liam McCafferty.
After a decision was taken on Thursday 27th November to postpone the debate, which was organised by the PSI Society, “due to the review processes for external speakers not being properly followed”, McCafferty took to Twitter to break the news and share the official union statement.
The announcement was met with criticism by Douglas Carswell, the first elected Ukip MP, who tweeted: “UEA student lefties have banned UKIP from speaking on campus. Sld boost turnout when I speak there in the New Year #FreeThinking”. After McCafferty replied to confirm why the event had been postponed, his Twitter account was bombarded by messages from Ukip supporters.
Carswell, who in a recent article in the Eastern Daily Press claimed that he “owes it all to the UEA”, said that a ban from campus would be helpful as it fits the narrative and boosts appeal.
While a debate over free speech and no platform policies continued on Twitter, the argument took a personal turn as one user said that it “sounds like somebody has been reading too much lab/con media led rubbish and not able to think for themselves” and another calling McCafferty a “soppy pratt”.
The information that many users were using to criticise McCafferty was taken from his Twitter bio, and in some cases found by looking up his past. @iukip made a link between McCafferty’s support of Celtic Football Club and a “tendency to threatening” with @chazers75 suggesting that others “have a look at liams pics, likes to protest alot”.
The debacle came to a head on Friday 28th November as the story was picked up by the national media, including the BBC and the Express, following the release of a blog post which details McCafferty’s involvement in a UAF demonstration against an EDL march in Bolton in March 2010. McCafferty was convicted of a breach of Section 5 of the Public Order Act at the demonstration and, after a failed appeal, was told to pay a £1,000 fines.
At the time, it was judged that: “Mr McCafferty saw the police officer in front of him and he decided in the heat of the moment to strike out a few sly blows”. However, a witness, Andrew Butler, testified that McCafferty had had his arms up to protect himself as he was bewildered by the pushing and shoving.
It was this incident which formed the basis of a blog post featured on Nope, not Hope which claims to be “shining a light on the hypocrisy of Hope not Hate”. Hope not Hate is an advocacy group which “campaigns to counter racism and fascism”. The post, which was initially shared by Jonathan Childs, Ukip’s Councillor for East Flegg, asks whether students can feel safe around a man with a conviction for political violence and accuses McCafferty of being a violent criminal.
Commenting on the online backlash, McCafferty said: “Whereas some have argued that the union’s approach to the Ukip issue is mollycoddling, some of the vile personal abuse that I’ve received underlines why other students were concerned about Ukip’s presence on campus. The abuse included personal insults and suggestions like I should be ‘beaten to a pulp’. I am shocked and saddened that it is deemed acceptable for senior Ukip figures to engage in personal attacks against a representative of students, whatever your opinions on the matter.
“Regardless, the union followed the correct procedure and did the right thing in pausing for a day which has allowed us to listen to all our members, on both sides of the row, and our solution will now ensure that the event can go ahead in a way that ensures robust challenge and democratic debate”.
The Union of UEA Students has since resolved to permit the event providing it “includes clear debate and challenge to the views of the external speaker via an opposing speaker chosen on the basis of robust and fair challenge”. The union’s Management Committee said: “Following the postponement of the event on Thursday we are pleased to have been able to reach a solution that we think appropriately balances the right to freedom of speech on campus with robust debate and challenge. It is regrettable that some have sought to misrepresent this process as an outright ‘ban’ for political ends”.
A revised date for the event is expected to be announced soon.
Correction: Previously this article stated that Liam McCafferty had been convicted of assaulting a police officer. We now understand that it was a breach of Section 5 of the Public Order Act and the article has been updated appropriately.