Free speech row after comedy performance is cancelled

Kate Smurthwaite Pic: Bronac McNeill

Kate Smurthwaite Pic: Bronac McNeill

A planned show by comedian and activist Kate Smurthwaite at Goldsmiths College has been cancelled at short notice amid a row over free speech.

Smurthwaite, whose show Leftie Cock Womble ironically deals with the issue of freedom of expression, has now vented her anger at the scrapping of the Monday night event by the Goldsmiths Comedy Society, accusing the Society of distorting the situation.

The Society said in a statement that the show had been cancelled because of low ticket sales as well as fears of a protest over Smurthwaite’s views on burqas and the sex industry.

But according to detailed exchanges published by Smurthwaite on her blog, the Society told her the show was being cancelled only because of the possibility of a protest, although the precise nature or extent of the protest was never made clear.

Smurthwaite claims the Society is being deliberately misleading over the ”only eight tickets sold” claim because it was never a ticketed event and that Society should have been able to deal with any complaints about her act. She also points out that the likelihood of protest was small anyway

On her blog, Smurthwaite wrote that freedom of speech gives people the responsibility to deal with complaints. She said “If you’re going to pull a show over sales, you could save a lot of effort by just doing that rather than trying to call me a bad person!”

The controversy began when Smurthwaite contacted the Society, which was staging the event in conjunction with the Goldsmiths Feminist Society, on Sunday to tell them there might be some protests, which she had learnt about on social media.

She was then told that, because of concern over some jokes she had previously made over burqas, the Feminist Society had conducted a vote over whether she should attend. The Feminist Society later said no such discussion or vote had ever taken place and that it had nothing to do with the cancellation.

The screen shots also show that the Society President said it would be best if she avoided talking about sex work. Goldsmiths Student’s Union passed a motion last November in favour of decriminalising sex work.

The Society later told Smurthwaite the decision had been taken, in consultation with the Students Union and college security, to cancel the show because of a possibility of a breach of the colleges ‘safe space’ policy, by either a demonstration or complaints. The Society cited five complaints from students posted on social media about Smurthwaite’s burqa jokes, but showed her only one.

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 13.07.22

Picture: Posted on Goldsmiths Comedy Society Facebook page

Smurthwaite concludes: I wasn’t shown the other complaints – I have asked for them. But on the other hand… that’s the responsibility that free speech gives us. People can say things, others can complain, someone needs to assess those complaints and see if they’re worth acting on. Obviously I think I should have been allowed to perform. Especially as my show – which is not in any way about the sex industry or the burqa – is about free speech. Actually there is no better time to heckle than halfway through a show about free speech!’’

She also pointed out the issue of tickets was not relevant – the show was always going to be free to members of the two Societies, with some tickets sold to others to cover costs, most of whom would be expected to turn up on the night, rather than book in advance. She had also been assured that ticket sales were ‘not a problem.’

The Comedy Society President, who has asked not to be named, said in a statement: “Despite many complaints from students about the content of Kate’s act in the past, we were planning to go ahead with the gig until Kate told me 24 hours before that there was likely to be a picket with lots of students and non-students outside the venue.”

The Comedy Society president said that although it was unable to verify that a protest would have taken place, but since the event had only sold eight tickets online, they decided it should be cancelled anyway.

The Society has refused to expand on the statement.

A spokesperson for Goldsmiths College told Eastlondonlines it was a matter for the Students’ Union, and they have no involvement in their decision-making.

The Students’ Union said: “The Goldsmiths Comedy Society is a small volunteer-led group. They made this decision independently from the Union and we support their right to decide who plays their gigs.’’

Smurtwaite has performed the show around the country and is a regular broadcaster and commentator who has also appeared on BBC’s Question Time.

By Zak Thomas with additional reporting by Debbie Falana

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