Should the Cambridge Union Society still host Julian Assange?

22 November 2012

Since its inception, the idea of having Julian Assange speak at the Cambridge Union has been embroiled in controversy, with the furore intensifying after the dubious cancellation of his speech. Has the disgraced Australian surrendered his right to speak at the prestigious CUS podium, or should he still be invited to address inquisitive Cambridge students?

YES: We cannot choose who ‘deserves’ free speech, and there are people who still want to hear Assange, argues Margherita Cornaglia

The Women’s Campaign in Cambridge, pushing to revoke Assange’s invitation, has argued that it is an “insult to survivors of rape”. This is highly questionable on several grounds. First, Assange’s case is still underway; second, revoking his invitation would almost amount to denying his freedom of speech, and finally, discriminating against Assange would be utterly wrong.

Lisa Longstaff, of Women Against Rape, told The Guardian, “We spend our lives trying to get men prosecuted for rape. We are aware of the context in which these particular accusations of sexual offences are being handled and we feel there are political motives behind the amount of resources that have been put into chasing down Assange.”

She is one of many who have doubts about Assange’s convictions. In Assange v Sweden, although the defendant’s appeal was rejected, issues concerning the consent of the alleged victims of rape and the validity of extradition by a prosecutor rather than a judge cast serious doubts on the fairness of his conviction.

Although Assange’s guilt is anything but certain, let us assume that it is. Does this justify, both legally and morally, the denial of his right to express his opinions and beliefs? Article 10(1) of the European Convention on Human Rights provides that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression.”

However, set out in 10(2) are limitations to 10(1). These provide a good ground for determining whether the Union should revoke its invitation. Would Assange’s speech fall into this article? It can be argued he should not be invited to safeguard ‘health or morals’. Yet is not revoking his invitation just as morally reprehensible? Denying him the right to express his views to students ‘willing to listen’ constitutes a legally unjustified breach of Article 10.

Nevertheless, although legally it appears to be wrong to revoke Assange’s invitation, would it be right on moral grounds? This depends on how far Assange’s talk could be considered an insult. Is the very idea of him speaking to Cambridge students an insult, or is the insult formulated by listeners? This points straight back to the Women’s Campaign. Denying his presence would not favour victims of rape. Placing excessive emphasis on vulnerable sectors of society risks increasingly alienating rather than empowering them (consider the criticism of politically correct labelling, e.g. ‘special kids’).

In the European Convention on Human Rights, Ovey, White and Jacobs state that “delineation of rights protected frequently involves a balancing exercise between the interests of the applicant and those of other individuals or the public as a whole.” Given the value of Assange’s talk, acknowledged by the many students who intend to attend the event, as well as the uncertainty as to the meaning of insult, it is hard to claim the Union would be justified in revoking his invitation.

Furthermore, a fundamental principle of the law, morally recognized, is that of allowing an accused to defend him- or herself and be represented, granting him or her a fair trial. If courts allow possible offenders such a degree of expression, then nobody else should be allowed to deny it.

Finally, and crucially, revoking Assange’s invitation would discriminate against him unfairly and unnecessarily. Discriminating against a criminal, particularly an uncertain one, would breach Article 12 of the Convention, which prohibits the discrimination “on any ground”, whether political, social, racial or any “other status”. Criminality can be considered an “other status”. His crime should not interfere with his right to express his views. It is absurd that only morally irreprehensible individuals should be allowed to speak. Whatever he has done, Assange has something to say. And there are many who are willing to listen.

Margherita Cornaglia is a first-year Lawyer at King’s.

NO: Women aren’t respected enough, and Assange’s presence would send the wrong message, claims Daniel Hernandez-Halpern

One of the problems with the Cambridge Union, and the university in a broader sense, is the immense privilege of its members and those that are involved in its organisational structure. You’re rich, white, probably a straight guy; you see the world through a filter of glorious social and political status, and it’s a good world. If for one moment, however, you try to adopt the viewpoint of a rape victim, things look very different. She knows that of around 85,000 rapes that take place in the UK annually, only around 13,000 are reported, and she knows that the reason for this is that fewer than 1,000 of these cases will lead to a criminal conviction. And now, thanks to the Cambridge Union’s abhorrent disregard for women’s issues and safety, she also knows that even whilst actively evading trial for accusations of rape, Assange’s voice has a status that exceeds any ever accorded to herself and other rape survivors.

The Cambridge Union’s ill-advised decision to invite Dominique Strauss-Kahn earlier this year was in poor taste; it was an affront to women who have experienced sexual assault and have had to face a legal system that makes such allegations difficult to prove, and subsequently does not treat them with gravity. The contention is confusing here; whilst no party goes on record as condoning sexual violence and rape, the Cambridge Union exercises appalling judgement in inviting speakers embroiled in such horrific criminal proceedings, which are in turn trivialised by the media and by celebrity-chasing Union members as scandalous and edgy.

The defences of DSK and Assange reek of the same uninformed and offensive reasoning, often along the lines of, “He’s only been accused of rape; he’s not an actual rapist,” or more infuriatingly, “Innocent until proven guilty!” An astonishing lack of awareness of the truth abounds among Cambridge students, wilfully ignorant of the fact that prima facie evidence existed proving Tristane Banon’s rape allegation against DSK, and equally glad to ignore that Julian Assange is currently delaying and hiding from court proceedings that would, according to Swedish chief prosecutor and sex crimes expert Marianne Ny, likely lead to a conviction of rape. Sorry, liberals, your chants of “Innocent until proven guilty” are of no worth when the man has no intention of standing trial.

Inviting Assange to the Cambridge Union is symptomatic of a society in which sympathy often finds itself located with the wrong parties. It is not rare to hear the patriarchal whine that runs something like, “I hate the idea that some woman can make up a rape charge against me and mess up my career. It happens, you know.” No, it doesn’t happen. Any professional will tell you that a woman who fabricates a charge of rape against a co-worker will never find work again, whereas a man who manages, via a legal loophole or his political status and fame (READ: DSK and Assange respectively), to evade prosecution for rape is perceived as an innocent victim. Far less contemplated is the fact that rape is a horrific crime that is, thanks to its trivialisation by organisations like the Cambridge Union, shrouded in secrecy and shame, directed most often at the crime’s victims.

Cambridge is increasingly becoming this kind of environment. The suspicion surrounding the CUSU Women’s Campaign and its framing by supposedly liberal defenders of free speech as a malicious and threatening entity that seeks to undermine freedoms and cause trouble is representative of a sad truth that extends beyond the Union and the University itself: women’s voices are not valued enough by our society, and Julian Assange’s platform at the Cambridge Union is just the latest reminder of that fact.

Daniel Hernandez-Halpern is a third-year Arch & Anth student at St John’s.