Irate campaigners have been hard to escape in the past few weeks. If you haven’t bumped into them, or had a leaflet or Facebook group invite, then here’s a summary: our SU Education Officer, Craig Cox, has been banned from all non-democratic NUS events, and our own Students’ Union tabled a motion of no confidence. Craig’s crime? He was caught during an NUS debate holding a banner saying, “bring back slavery” – with all the racist allusions that entails.

The voices in defence of Craig have been too quiet, and there is far more at stake than just his job. It is important to remember here that he broke no law, and the grounds for Craig’s ban are that he has been found “in serious breach” of the NUS equal opportunities policy. The argument among Nottingham’s students is that Craig has acted irresponsibly and made himself unapproachable where our university’s black population is concerned. I suspect that this has more to do with people’s perception of him than with his actual character.

Bayo Randle, Black Students Officer and one of Craig’s would-be assassins, added that Craig offended “huge numbers of the student population” and “strained community relations.” The real paradox of the anti-Cox campaign is that it is spreading the offence across campus itself, and even into the pages of the Daily Mail. The honest way to avoid offence would have been to restrict it, if it existed at all, to those who were in the room with Craig. The executioners are looking for something else entirely: an example.

So what can be said in the defence of a man I have seen to be an effective and well-liked leader? Firstly, I think people’s grounds for offence are unjustified. Craig Cox did not take up a pro-slavery position – it seems to have been a near-the-knuckle joke in the true English tradition of satire. Importantly, he did not write the sign and did not deliberately show it to the whole room (NUS accepted this in their investigation). Aside from the question of its exposure, however, humour is notoriously difficult to analyse under the light of interrogation. Bellavia Ribeiro Addy, NUS Black Students Officer, unintentionally proves the point in her debate contribution: “why would you do something like that if it wasn’t to deliberately offend a particular group?”

If Craig had argued for the return of slavery, that would not in itself make him a racist (explicit evidence would be needed to declare him so); saying something racist is very different from acting out racism in one’s life. During debates, one must prepare to be shocked or even offended; that is the nature of such polarised discussions. If we were to prosecute every instance of ‘offence’, there would be no-one left to run the prosecution. So we must be more careful when claiming that things like offence, distress or harassment are taking place – these terms have a habit of becoming ubiquitous.

It has been pointed out that slavery was not a purely black problem, but I think that is a less central point than the following, which is my second proposition: that freedom of speech should not be endangered because we fear undue consequences. What’s important here is that we must feel able to speak our minds without apprehension, especially in debating difficult or controversial issues. And, yes, even in proposing something that might be seen as ‘racist’ if it can be reasoned. Free speech necessarily involves freedom to offend.

As has been the case with some health and safety legislation, fear of breaking the rules will be far more damaging than the rules themselves. Fear of disproportionate reaction, of censure, of being banned or of calls for resignation will be a psychological limiting factor in future NUS debates. This is especially true when there might be no official warning and no second chance.

University Park needs to calm down and think for the long-term. The real legacy of the anti-Cox movement will not be in stamping out racism; it will be in silencing freedom of expression among the very people we expect to speak out for us.

Edward Cain

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15 Comments

  1. Luke Place
    October 24, 2008 at 18:27 — Reply

    “The argument among Nottingham’s students is that Craig has acted irresponsibly and made himself unapproachable where our university’s black population is concerned. I suspect that this has more to do with people’s perception of him than with his actual character.”

    Members of the black population of our university are only a fraction of those who found the initial offence and subsequent comments to be completely unrepresentative of their views; it is not just those who were offended who believe Craig is now unapproachable. Furthermore, Craig’s NUS ban means he won’t be able to go to events the electorate anticipated he would attend when they elected him.

    Craig Cox’s character is not what is under question here, it’s his actions and how they represent the views of over 30,000 students. When a member of our SU Exec is found to be in serious breach of equal opportunities policy it is clear that they are not properly doing their job for which they were elected.

    By using phrases like “would-be assassins”, “the executioners” and “the anti-Cox movement” you fail to comprehend that 99% of those asking for Craig Cox’s resignation have never met him and have no idea of his character. The claim that this is a personal attack could not be further from the truth.

  2. Lucy
    October 25, 2008 at 01:02 — Reply

    More out of interest than anything else – what exactly was the original joke?

  3. Vanessa Anne Esi Brown
    October 25, 2008 at 01:26 — Reply

    Interesting article; however it is, of course, completely UNBALANCED! You could have made more of an effort to write a more objective evaluation. This article is purely based entirely on your own opinion, which happens to support Mr. Cox. One interesting point you made was that you said Mr’ Cox’s crime was ‘being caught during an NUS debate holding a banner saying, “bring back slavery” ‘. I still wonder…WHERE DID THIS BANNER COME FROM IN THE 1ST PLACE! Can no-one answer this question?! Your use of the word ‘caught’ is quite ironic conisidering you suggest he did nothing wrong……….

    Do you really believe for the sake of “debate” it is okay to seriously offend people? Are PEOPLE not more important than the debate? I believe they are. I also think it is unjust of you to call those that do not support Mr. Cox’s actions, ‘executioners’. By your usage of various negative terminology against the dissenters you simply do what you acuse them of doing i.e being biased.

    I think ultimately: Some jokes are just NOT FUNNY.

    Vanessa.

  4. October 25, 2008 at 16:31 — Reply

    “The voices in defence of Craig have been too quiet, and there is far more at stake than just his job. It is important to remember here that he broke no law, and the grounds for Craig’s ban are that he has been found “in serious breach” of the NUS equal opportunities policy. The argument among Nottingham’s students is that Craig has acted irresponsibly and made himself unapproachable where our university’s black population is concerned. I suspect that this has more to do with people’s perception of him than with his actual character.”

    Firstly, perhaps the silence on the part of Craig’s supporters is that he, er, doesn’t have many? There’s also the problem in that very little information (and what little there is is somewhat conflicting) has been released about the actual events surrounding this.

    Secondly, whilst there is nothing ex-plicitly racist about the sign, there is very much something im-plicitly racist, in the sense that slavery tends to be asssociated with racial motivations. And whilst it is true that the BME has been the focal point of the campaign, it is not true that it is the “black population” who will be most affected by having a racist officer in place. Every student suffers if such a person is in such a position, and it is surely the case that many peoples’ first impressions of Craig will be through hearing of his holding up the sign. To assume every student has some impression of his personality far over-assumes the importance of student politics upon the lives of most students. What is driving these events are the snippets released from official sources, and the flyers being handing out in the Portland building.

    “Bayo Randle, Black Students Officer and one of Craig’s would-be assassins, added that Craig offended “huge numbers of the student population” and “strained community relations.” The real paradox of the anti-Cox campaign is that it is spreading the offence across campus itself, and even into the pages of the Daily Mail. The honest way to avoid offence would have been to restrict it, if it existed at all, to those who were in the room with Craig. The executioners are looking for something else entirely: an example.”

    This is simply ridiculous. The entire point of democracy (and free speech) is the bringing of debatable opinions out into the open and proving them in the mettle of fierce debate. Assuming that something like this is only an issue for the elected representatives to deal with is highly un-democratic, and the reaction to the incident (justified or not, disproportionate or not) is part of the same system that elects and chooses these representatives. Worse, it conflicts with your conclusion.

    “So what can be said in the defence of a man I have seen to be an effective and well-liked leader? Firstly, I think people’s grounds for offence are unjustified. Craig Cox did not take up a pro-slavery position – it seems to have been a near-the-knuckle joke in the true English tradition of satire. Importantly, he did not write the sign and did not deliberately show it to the whole room (NUS accepted this in their investigation). Aside from the question of its exposure, however, humour is notoriously difficult to analyse under the light of interrogation. Bellavia Ribeiro Addy, NUS Black Students Officer, unintentionally proves the point in her debate contribution: “why would you do something like that if it wasn’t to deliberately offend a particular group?””

    This paragraph is worrying. You here make two points:

    1) “…it seems to have been a near-the-knuckle joke in the true English tradition of satire.”
    2) “…he did not write the sign and did not deliberately show it to the whole room…”

    Point 1) requires intent. It cannot be satire if it was not intended to be satirical. Yet point 2) attempts to let Craig off by pointing out that he didn’t write the sign, nor hold it up deliberately. The latter point is more convincing than the former, going from eyewitness accounts and the subsequent investigation – thus any attempt to make it out as a joke is pointless, because Craig’s best defence is to claim a lack of intent. It is best to drop that line if you’re intent on defending him – not least because it makes it incredibly hard to convince people of the already strange holding up of the card without intent.

    “If Craig had argued for the return of slavery, that would not in itself make him a racist (explicit evidence would be needed to declare him so); saying something racist is very different from acting out racism in one’s life. During debates, one must prepare to be shocked or even offended; that is the nature of such polarised discussions. If we were to prosecute every instance of ‘offence’, there would be no-one left to run the prosecution. So we must be more careful when claiming that things like offence, distress or harassment are taking place – these terms have a habit of becoming ubiquitous.

    “It has been pointed out that slavery was not a purely black problem, but I think that is a less central point than the following, which is my second proposition: that freedom of speech should not be endangered because we fear undue consequences. What’s important here is that we must feel able to speak our minds without apprehension, especially in debating difficult or controversial issues. And, yes, even in proposing something that might be seen as ‘racist’ if it can be reasoned. Free speech necessarily involves freedom to offend.”

    Your first point, on the racism angle, is true – advocating slavery is not explicitly racist. And you are correct that we should allow free discussion of issues, even ones that could offend. Here is where I personally differ the most from the campaign to get rid of Craig – his censure is not just stupid, and not just immoral, but it is a greater ‘crime’ than that he is accused of. However, your following point does not help Craig, but in fact makes his position even less tenable:

    “As has been the case with some health and safety legislation, fear of breaking the rules will be far more damaging than the rules themselves. Fear of disproportionate reaction, of censure, of being banned or of calls for resignation will be a psychological limiting factor in future NUS debates. This is especially true when there might be no official warning and no second chance.

    “University Park needs to calm down and think for the long-term. The real legacy of the anti-Cox movement will not be in stamping out racism; it will be in silencing freedom of expression among the very people we expect to speak out for us.”

    Craig has, so far, refused to engage in exactly this (at least, in a way in which the general student body can have their say). The entire point of free speech is the ability to challenge and debate without fear or retribution, in pursuit of some kind of truth.

    Your choice of words in the final sentence is somewhat ironic. This entire campaign is focused not on censoring Craig (that is part of it, true) but is instead intent on his removal because of his perceived bias and prejudice, which will prevent him from speaking out for the people he was elected to represent.

    (Also: You’re not amongst the Bullingdon Club, so I’m afraid references to health & safety legislation won’t particularly endear your argument to readers.)

    I don’t think Craig should go, mainly because I think the man isn’t a racist. From what I’ve heard of him I’m not his biggest fan, but I’m not going to jump to conclusions about what happened. The least likely of all possibilities, as I can see it, is that he deliberately wrote the sign and held it up. The idea that anyone, even a hardened neo-Nazi, would do such a thing in such a situation, requires an incredible amount of stupidity. The evidence trickling out seems to have this as a mistake, one blown out of all sensible proportion due to both Craig’s remarks to the media (I’ve heard he didn’t mean what he said but, fucking hell, one of the quickest ways to make himself seem guilty as sin) and the lack of information/statements from student organisations. I’m still up in the air, of course, but then I don’t really have a choice when this feels like a debate between Bernard Manning and Al Sharpton.

  5. Vanessa Anne Esi Brown
    October 25, 2008 at 18:05 — Reply

    Ian : I love your response it is actually BALANCED and you make some EXCELLENT points.

    Just for anyone that may be interested:
    THERE HAS BEEN AN ACCOUNT OF WHAT IS ACTUALLY SUPPOSED TO HAVE HAPPENED, SEE THE 2ND COMMENT BY ‘ROB’ in the original article, ‘Students’ Union Votes to Keep Craig Cox’.

    Rob on October 25th, 2008 at 3:34 pm :
    “…i know what i am on about because i have had access to source material concerning the events, i understand not every student has had the same access i had, hey i was under the impression to that he held it up as a joke, until i got access to the evidence. Oh it was an accident because his friend wrote the sign and urged craig to raise it up, craig refused and explaned it was going too far and was distasteful. So then he put it on the floor, and later he reached down for another sign and accidently picked up the sign, it was in the air for 2/3 seconds before he realised it was the slavery one and immediately put it down, feeling regret. It is up to you what you believe, but it is an issue where the truth is that. The only issue up for debate is wether you think the media statements craig made are enough to remove him from office. That is the only thing up for credible debate.”

    See now if the above is true then Mr. Cox had no intention to offend.

    Rob also states:
    “…the papers mixed up the chronology of the events, the issue of knife crime at university was according to craig 20 minutes afterwards. The press, so eager to label racist on someone, wrote pieces implying that the sign was in response. The BME leaflet at freshers fair also stated the the sign was ‘presumably’ refering to that statement. There has been alot of mixing up events to create this as a race issue.”

    But as i wrote in response:

    Vanessa Anne Esi Brown on October 25th, 2008 at 5:45 pm:
    “….I can now see that Mr. Cox is evidently NOT a racist individual but I think he has dealt with the situation very poorly. Why did he not explain himself properly to the media and/or issue an statement to the student body? Personally I now take back my comments that he meant to offend black students (I can now see that he did not mean to do so) but why has he not spoken up publicly but only in the privacy of Student Exec meetings.

    Ironically the fact that he did not really speak up for himself caused his friends/supporters to create more problems whislt trying to defend his actions. They have labelled his actions as a joke, mistake (with no explanation) or his right to freedom of speech. These explanations serve only to incese studens further. For a summary of such an argument see the new features article: http://www.impactnottingham.com/2008/10/the-bring-back-slavery-fiasco-offence-and-its-dangers-to-us/

    The writer claims that Mr. Cox’s actions were just an example of ‘traditional english satire’ and that ‘the executioners’ are trying to get rid of his/our right to ‘freedom of speech’. I’m sorry what a load of s***!!! Its people like that that have actually hindered NOT helped Mr. Cox’s defence.”

    I think the original article: http://www.impactnottingham.com/2008/10/students-union-votes-to-keep-craig-cox/ has some interesting comments on it both PRO and ANTI Mr. Cox for those who are intested.
    I myself now am unsure where I stand…….

    Vanessa.

  6. Edward Cain (article author)
    October 27, 2008 at 21:54 — Reply

    This article was never meant to be an exploration of the Craig Cox affair- I used it instead as a platform to explore the larger issue of free speech. I’m less concerned with Craig’s job here than with ensuring that a similar thing doesn’t happen the next time someone is offended.

    I ‘d like to point out that I didn’t intend this to be a balanced article either – that’s a job for the news team.

    May I make one point of clarification though? I read that people have interpreted my article as arguing that Craig meant the sign as a joke. He did not. If you look at my mention of ‘traditional English satire’ you’ll note that I did not mention Craig as the joker there. Rather, as two witness statements make clear, the sign was not written by him and so the joke was not his.

    I hope my use of terms such as ‘executioners’ and ‘would-be assassins’ haven’t unduly detracted from my arguments – they’re a result of my love for metaphors. I make no apology for that, but point out that they won’t reflect my feelings for the people I described. I’ve spoken to Bayo, for example, and he comes across as an intelligent and welcoming man for whom I have respect. But he is a ‘would-be assassin’ in the sense that he was one who called for Craig’s removal from office.

    As Vanessa pointed out in her last comment, there has indeed been an account of what happened. In fact, there is a whole dossier of witness accounts, emails and letters which was sent to SU members. For example, it had a statement from the chap who actually wrote the sign, Craig’s initial letter of apology to figures at NUS, the email from Craig’s lawyer containing the now infamous statement to the Daily Mail, and more. If you would like more information, email Craig Cox at [email protected] and I’m sure he will send you whatever he is allowed to. If you’re interested in pursuing the debate, knowledge of the events surrounding the incident is a must for informed discussion.

    I shall say it again though: this article is a defence of free speech, using my feelings about the slavery fiasco as a starting point.

  7. Luke Place
    October 28, 2008 at 11:48 — Reply

    Since it seems unlikely that anyone is likely to give you a balanced opinion, myself included, I would suggest that you seek an alternative to Rob’s views from someone involved in proposing the motion of no confidence, or perhaps one of your SU representatives. Their offices are in Portland near the Karni office.

  8. Luke Place
    October 28, 2008 at 11:49 — Reply

    p.s. I will be posting my views on the main article shortly. Suffice it to say I don’t agree with Rob.

  9. Vanessa Anne Esi Brown
    October 29, 2008 at 04:15 — Reply

    Thanks for clarifying that Edward; at this moment in time most are For or Against or Undecided!!! and your article, even just the title and your lexical choice, do come across as being very PRO. But after reading your comment I can see SLIGHTLY better how you are using the incident to discuss freedom of speech- however in all honesty I think you are Pro-Craig, come on admit it!!!, lol.

    With regards to me e-mailing Mr. Cox and asking him for information regarding/surrounding the events…….Is that even possible??? I mean obviously its literally possible but I mean surely he would obviously only send me biased information (perhaps even unintentionally) and 2ndly do students even have the RIGHT to access such material. If yes, then why weren’t we all given it much earlier, maybe even to support his defence?!

    It seems to me that if a man is not even willing to write/deliver a statement in his defence (ignoring the Daily Mail rubbish) after being accused of racism then what do I e-mail him: Hi, my name is Vanessa. I have heard various accounts of the incident that took place during the NUS meeting in York and would like you to send me all the information, if possible, so that I can make an informed decision on whether or not I want you to remain as Education Officer and represent me.

    Would that be okay? Or do I just sound cocky?!! and like I’m sooooo important! He’ll probably think….’oh, just $£*& off!’ Lol. Are we even ENTITLED to keep pursuing him after a Vote of No Confidence fell? These are things that students need to know!

    I think I may email him that EXACT message and see what response I get!!

    Well, anyways…. as I said thanks for clarifying your intention Edward. I shall continue this topic in the other article from now on!

    Vanessa.

    Ps:I still believe that Freedom Of Speech does NOT come before being humane/considerate and the right to live without fear of attack either physical/verbal. Our right to say what we think has its limits in that Racism, Sexism, Homophobia etc are against the law (for good reasons) and is OK to discuss such things and from what I am aware it is NOT ILLEGAL to THINK racist, sexist or homophobic thoughts but to SAY them is because your words harm others but the private thoughts inside your head do not even though they may be extremely bad/wrong.
    You wouldn’t say to your aunty, ‘wow! you’ve gotten bloody enormous!’ So why is it okay to say negative things about a certain race, just for the sake of debate…….

    Just a thought!

    Vanessa.

  10. Vanessa Anne Esi Brown
    October 29, 2008 at 14:42 — Reply

    PS: I emailed Mr. Cox and he told me that he will send me the information.

    So, I guess I” just have to wait and see what I’m given!

    Vanessa.

  11. Vanessa Anne Esi Brown
    November 4, 2008 at 19:47 — Reply

    Update: Erm…well Mr. Cox e-mailed me back asking for my school of study so that he could send me the information and that’s the last I’ve heard from him…. I know its only been a week but ya know……..It doesn’t look promising!

    Vanessa.

  12. November 27, 2008 at 05:07 — Reply

    Is this evidence of lack of seriousness when it comes to tackling issues especially of importance to african and african caribbean people.

    there will be no investigations or delibrations if someone said ‘ Bring the Holocaust Back’
    heads would have long rolled and buried.

  13. November 28, 2008 at 14:52 — Reply

    After all, assuming that someone’s guilty before being proved innocent is a cornerstone of living in a fair and just society…

    If we merely condemn for the sake of rumour and hearsay we will be soon be left with witches on the stake and paediatricians in the hands of lynchings. It’s a dangerous slope.

  14. Vanessa Anne Esi Brown
    December 2, 2008 at 07:18 — Reply

    Well…I was going to leave this topic alone but as the Impact Team decided to highlight that the topic is still on going in their latest issue, I decided to see what’s been said…

    All I really want to add is that FOR THE RECORD: I never received ANY information from Mr. Cox. and its approx. 6 weeks since I emailed him. He did respond asking for my School of Study but I wasn’t very optimistic even a week later (as can be seen from my comment above) however 6 weeks later and its like… *sigh*…

    Individuals that are supposed to represent us and our views and beliefs on freedom of information and equality for all simply do not seem to practise what they’re employed to preach.

    Vanessa.

  15. Adam
    December 18, 2008 at 01:03 — Reply

    Ridiculous. Political correctness kills Democracy.

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