The philosopher AC Grayling may have misjudged how his New College of the Humanities would be received. Setting up a private university in Bloomsbury with fees of £18,000 per annum as a reaction to the UK government’s assault on higher education funding was probably not his best idea, despite his aim of providing financial assistance for 30 percent of its ‘gifted’ undergraduate students. But that doesn’t remove his right to speak in public. Whoever would think that it did?
Well, hecklers at a discussion of cuts to art funding held in Foyles Charing Cross Road bookshop on Tuesday evening, apparently. Grayling was speaking there, along with broadcaster Christopher Frayling and playwright Mick Gordon.
Not content with calling out “You have no right to speak” and “You should be defending public education not deserting it”, towards the end of the discussion one protestor let off a smoke bomb that filled the room with acrid red fumes, forcing the bookshop to evacuate the 100 or so people attending the event.
Grayling, a passionate advocate of free expression, had behaved impeccably in the debate, and had even offered to stay on afterwards to discuss objections to his college. Ending a conversation with a smoke bomb isn’t just impolite, or student high jinks, it is very different from spontaneous heckling or angry questioning: it is a form of pre-meditated censorship. Pace the heckler’s claim, we all have a right to speak, whether or not we have just set up a private university.