Artillery Row

Death by red tape

“Soft cancellation” is the preferred tool of institutionalised censoriousness

A recent case at Cardiff University highlights the rise of an insidious type of cancellation whereby the imposition of an extreme amount of paperwork, compliance demands, and bottleneck dynamics is likely to discourage if not debilitate organisers from proceeding. 

Last month, Cardiff Academic Freedom Association (CAFA) held their inaugural launch event: a lively panel lecture featuring Nigel Biggar, Jo Phoenix, and Naomi Waltham-Smith exploring challenges to academic freedom in today’s educational landscape. 

Although the event was a great success, it came at a high price: both financially and to its organisers’ stamina. First, the University decided to classify the event as an “external” rather than an “internal” event, thereby refusing to cover the costs of venue hire and security charges.

Seemingly oblivious to the irony of attempting to cancel an event on academic freedom, the grounds for classifying the event as external were questionable, at the very least. According to the university’s senior management, the lecture did not classify as a Cardiff University event “per se”, but rather one hosted by CAFA, which simply consists of Cardiff University academics.

Other than being a distinction without a difference, this categorisation belies an inconsistent application of the university’s policies. Cardiff University frequently absorbs the costs of events hosted by organisations which are strictly speaking external, yet comprise university academics. These include meetings of learned societies and staff associations, and conferences held by journals whose editors are based at the university. 

Luckily, the Free Speech Union agreed to cover the excess charges, and the event was able to proceed as planned. However, the obstacles did not stop here. The process of arranging security was an uphill struggle against what seemed to be a never-ending volume of red tape, paperwork, meetings, and bottleneck dynamics.

Over a hundred emails were exchanged with security who, together with the compliance and risk team, seemed to identify endless additional details which needed to be changed or added to the paperwork. Amid the inconsistencies, we were also instructed to proactively enforce and make salient our compliance with the university’s “Dignity at Work & Study” policy, often used by HR managers to silence debate on sensitive issues. This was despite being classified as an “external commercial booking” and therefore not strictly liable for complying with it.

In addition to a flurry of nit-picking and post-shifting emails, we were required to re-sign and re-scan documents multiple times, attend a lengthy meeting with seven security officers, and were told that we were “personally responsible” for the proper conduct of all attendees. All the while, it remained uncertain whether the event would even go ahead, such was the volume, opacity, and impenetrability of the compliance burden.

As if this relentless red-tape plastering wasn’t debilitating enough, we were also given the impression that the event was a nuisance, and that a stampede of protesters was likely to descend. This was understandably off-putting to our speakers and, having bent over backwards to secure an ideologically diverse panel, we were lucky that this did not take us back to square one.

Advertising also proved harder than expected, with administrators reluctant to circulate the event on staff mailing lists, limiting it instead to internal staff pages. It was only when we questioned whether there was a managerial decision behind this anomaly that the event was all of a sudden shared via email.

Given this background, it is lucky that the event went ahead at all, let alone so successfully. Not a single protester turned up, preoccupied as they were with the university encampment. As such, one cannot help but wonder why the security threat was so overblown; why the bureaucratic burden was so extreme; what was the extent of senior management’s influence throughout the process. 

just how many events have been indirectly halted at the starting line by universities wishing to avoid accusations of no-platforming?

An inference to the best explanation suggests that this is nothing short of a “soft cancellation” attempt, whereby a no-platforming result is pursued without it ever being revealed as such. Although the true incidence of soft cancellations cannot be quantified (by definition), the question arises: just how many events have been indirectly halted at the starting line by universities wishing to avoid accusations of no-platforming?

A commonly cited statistic in the House of Lords debate over the Higher Education Freedom of Speech Bill was that during 2019-20, only six events involving an external speaker were cancelled, according to the 61 students’ unions surveyed. However, none of the data cited include soft cancellations; indeed, by their very nature they will never make it into the official statistics. But absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and, as the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act begins to clamp down on overt cancellations, the incentive to resort to the soft approach may become harder to resist.

What this case illustrates is that covert cancellations can actually present a greater threat than their overt equivalents. Their opaque and insidious nature present a convenient way of bypassing accountability mechanisms, deterring organisers from the outset. One wonders how many others would complete such an obstacle course successfully.

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