Furious backlash over plans to bring far right activist to speak in York

Controversial: Tommy Robinson, in a photograph from his Facebook page
13 Dec 2016 @ 7.24 pm
| News

Plans bring former far-right leader Tommy Robinson to speak in York have prompted a furious backlash.

The co-founder of the English Defence League (EDL) was invited by University of York student journalists to be the first speaker at a new series of public talks.

But the decision sparked anger and condemnation – and the organisers have since backtracked.

Nouse Events at the University of York posted 220 tickets on Facebook for an event starring Tommy Robinson – real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon – centred around “free speech, liberty and the police state”.

It was scheduled to take place on January 19.

The original invite said:

Tommy will give a talk on the above topics and then do a long Q&A, fielding questions from the audience.

This event is being organised by York Talks, a subsidiary of the student newspaper York Vision which will host speakers in the public eye.

Having quit the EDL in 2013 Tommy Robinson now heads up the anti-Islam Pegida UK movement.

No debate

Tommy Robinson at a rally

Other students and York residents have slammed the plans.

Sophie Flinders, York University Students’ Union’s black, minority ethnic (BME) officer, said she did not condone Mr Robinson’s appearance and accused him of “popularising Islamophobia”.

Sophie told YorkMix: “Let’s be clear, Robinson, in his work with the EDL and Pegida has popularised Islamophobia.

“I’m not interested in debating him or his views on free speech because fascism is an ideology rooted in violence; a ‘debate’ or dialogue implies some kind of level playing field from which to proceed.”

Rise of the far right

She said the event needed to be placed in the context of “the current political climate of Brexit, Trump and the rise of the far right in Europe”.

Sophie added:

It’s quite apparent that the student press have invited him to ‘spur debate’ and create controversy, which I think is completely unnecessary – and could come at the expense of Muslim students and students of colour, who often bear the brunt of when these views become normalised.

Robinson is a marginal character on the far right these days and him speaking and the attention around it could get him back in the spotlight, which would be a shame to see happen, all for the sake of a few student journalists trying to further their career off the back of far right politics.

Graham Martin, an activist within the York People’s Assembly, warned that all ethnic minority residents of the city would be at risk if Mr Robinson was allowed to speak.

“Many will say we should defeat the likes of Robinson in debate, but doing so will only promote his message that white people are victims of a conspiracy, whilst putting not just Muslim students but all York’s residents from ethnic minorities at risk,” he said.

“I am appalled that some University of York students appear unable to apply basic lessons from history.”

Liberty and freedom

University of York Central Hall. Photograph © Johnteslade on Wikipedia

A Nouse Events spokesman defended the plan, telling YorkMix the main message was to create a “varied vision of society and free speech”.

He said: “This is not a one-off event but the start of a discussion about the nature of liberty and freedom at the university.”

Another York University student paper Nouse was originally involved. In a statement it said “someone who is not Nouse staff jumped the gun and posted a description of the event that had not been agreed and does not reflect our view of it”.

The date for the talk had not been agreed either.

The statement went on: “We do want Tommy Robinson to come and speak – and face challenging questions for York students and staff – and hope that he will still do so.

“We will be making further announcements when the programme is ready.”

Alex Lusty, YUSU’s student activities officer, said: “A student society had planned to bring Tommy Robinson to campus, but has since cancelled the event.

“YUSU have not been approached by any other student group wishing to host Mr Robinson.”