Following the recent establishment of the Atheist and Secular Humanist Society (NASH), the group held its first official event last week with guest speaker Gray Sergeant.
A member of the organisation Student Rights, Sergeant is a graduate of LSE and has appeared on the BBC talkshow The Big Questions. Student Rights was founded in 2009, with the aim of faciliting freedom of speech, minimising exclusion of marginalised groups and preventing extremist views of all types from going unchallenged.
The presentation focused both on freedom of speech as well as extremism on campus, the issues surrounding these topics and suggestions on how to resolve them. Sergeant outlined the issue of far-right and religious extremist groups attempting to infiltrate university campuses.
Part of his organisation’s work involves tracking various speakers regarded as extreme such as an individual who spoke at Cardiff University, and who was alleged to have described homosexuality as a “scourge” – which led to an investigation and the subsequent discovery of some disturbingly homophobic blog posts.
Sergeant was keen to stress that the objective of his work is not to silence or exclude those who hold conservative religious views. He said his organisation “[is] all about inclusivity and not marginalising people for having certain relgious beliefs”. Rather the aim is to highlight and raise awareness of those who “cross the line” into hateful or inciteful conduct.
A central theme of the evening was engaging and challenging extreme views expressed on campuses, and stopping them from going without scrutiny. Sergeant expressed concern at the recent trend of banning speakers who express views that some may disagree with, arguing that by engaging them in fair and open debate, they can be properly challenged and not allowed to simply propagate a single, “dominant” narrative. The topic of safe spaces was also discussed, with concern expressed over the balance between protecting and facilitating meetings of vulnerable and marginalised groups, whilst still trying to engage with and debate opposing viewpoints.
Sergeant also highlighted that freedom of speech should always work both ways. Citing an example from a London university where a student was intimidated for questioning a speaker’s past comments, he argued that these opposing views must be heard without intimidation or safety fears.
The presentation was warmly received by the audience, with a number of follow-up questions and answers on different topics . It gave a good start to a new society, and provided a new forum of discussion for a previosuly unrepresented student demographic at Newcastle University.