The Cambridge Union Society is embroiled in controversy after President James Counsell banned a member for life for allegedly verbally abusing a speaker at a debate.
Gabriel Latner, a second-year Law student at Peterhouse, was handed the ban after he refused to apologize to fellow proposition speaker Lauren Booth for making a comment that was deemed inappropriate last Thursday at the Union debate, "This House believes Israel is a rogue state."
According to Latner’s account, the incident began when he told Booth that he was Jewish and had volunteered with the Israeli Army. Latner believes this information contributed to Booth’s unease with him speaking for the proposition.
On Booth’s request, Latner was moved from first to second speaker for the proposition. Before getting up to speak, he turned to Booth and said, "I am going to nail you to the fucking wall up there."
Booth later complained about Latner’s comment to Counsell, who then confronted Latner, and requested that he apologise to Booth. When Latner refused to do so, Counsell had Latner escorted off the premises and told him he was banned for life for disrupting a Union event and verbally abusing a guest on the Society’s premises.
Speaking to Varsity, Counsell said, "Gabe had ten minutes to address an audience of 800, during which time he was representing the Union and all its membership to our guests and the wider world watching. His decision to verbally abuse one of our female guests using sexual language has done enormous levels of harm to the reputation of our Union, as well as crossing all boundaries of basic human decency.
"I should remind our members that our speakers participate for free because of our reputation, and that anybody personally connected to Lauren Booth will now almost certainly avoid us like the plague. This includes, amongst many others, Cherie Booth and Tony Blair.
"Any member who behaves in this way will be punished, let alone who does so whilst representing the Union as the President’s personal guest."
In response, Latner has decided to appeal Counsell’s decision with the Union’s Review Committee. The substance of Latner’s appeal hinges on his contention that his actions in no way disrupted the event, do not constitute verbal abuse, and were not sufficient grounds for a lifetime ban from the Union.
Moreover, Latner believes that Counsell lacked the authority to ban him and did not follow the procedural requirements for disciplinary action, as laid out in the Union constitution.
In particular, Latner contends that Counsell failed to conduct a "Presidential investigation" before imposing a penalty, as the Union’s Constitution stipulates. Counsell, on the other hand, argues that an investigation was conducted, since he spoke to all parties involved in the incident, and gave Latner the opportunity to comment on and review all evidence brought against him.
According to Latner, "What really bothers me is the way in which Mr Counsell treated the Union’s constitution. That is a legal document. It defines very clearly the rights and responsibilities of the members and officers. I think he ignored (or forgot) his responsibilities and he chose to disregard not just my, but every member’s rights. I’m not the type of person who will take that lying down.
"I think this is about weighing my (and everyone else’s) right to free speech against any indignity Ms Booth suffered. If the Chamber of the Union isn’t going to be a sanctuary for free speech I don’t want my membership back."
Latner further told Varsity, "I’m not saying I acted without fault. Did I offend Ms Booth? I have no doubt that I did. But I don’t know if what Ms Booth found offensive was my (private) comment to her, or the fact that I actually ‘nailed her to the wall’ in my (public) speech. I can guess though.
"As for Mr Counsell’s behaviour, I think his actions were rash. In truth, getting ‘banned for life’ from the Union isn’t going to drastically change my life."
Latner has filed a complaint against Counsell for abuse of official position with Union President-Elect Lauren Davidson. According to Union rules, in complaints that involve the President, the President-Elect acts as the President for purposes of investigation.
Counsell has responded, "Whether or not I acted proportionately is for the Review Committee to decide."
Counsell has also offered Latner the opportunity to reduce his penalty to a £30 fine, on the condition that Latner sends a hand-written letter of apology to Booth by Sunday 31st October.
Meanwhile, the Union has also come under criticism for the content of the debate itself, which was described in pro-Israeli media as "an important PR achievement," and has received complaints that the debate was intentionally pro-Israeli.
In particular, the Union has been criticised for allowing Latner to speak for the proposition, when he was known to have worked for a pro-Israeli think-tank, Foundation for the Defence of Democracies. The Union maintains that it does not vet speakers’ speeches.
President of the Palestinian Society, Sohail Jannesari commented, "I think that in such a divisive issue, it is important for a balanced debate to take place. Clearly, inviting Gabriel Latner to speak on behalf of what was essentially the pro-Palestinian position was not going to be conducive to a balanced debate.
"The Union president has said (in an email to one of our members) that they cannot vet the speakers’ speeches. While this is true, I am sure that the Union President is more than capable of typing Gabriel Latner into Google."
In a letter to Counsell, members of the CU Palestine society, Black student’s campaign, Arab society, and Islamic Society, among others, asked "How can the Union justify inviting a speaker who clearly lacks any credibility to speak on behalf of the proposition?"
Other students, however, applauded Latner’s speech. According to President-Elect Davidson, "I think Gabriel’s speech was really well-informed. The Union exists to provide a platform for free speech, and so we don’t check speeches in advance.
"In almost all our debates, speakers from each side twist the motion and it’s usually thought very clever and funny."
Davidson added, "The motion was not asking ‘Is this house pro or anti-Israel?’ It was asking whether Israel is a rogue state, which Gabriel argued exactly according to the motion. So, he was not arguing for the wrong side."
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