Stephen Fingleton’s “The Column” in the University of London’s student newspaper London Student had already caused complaints to be brought to the University of London Union (ULU) Executive in early May, at which “It was agreed that… LS [London student] should be free to print articles generally without interference.” They went on to suggest that problems arose because some readers did not understand the paper’s editorial independence, saying “offended readers and individuals do not see LS as separate and the damage often affects ULU more than LS.”
They then suggested that the column be discontinued but admitted they were “unsure how to do this in practice” and when London student Editor Lila Allen consulted ULU President Chris Piper concerning Mr Fingleton’s column for the next issue it was found that Mr Piper had no power to remove it from the newspaper. As Ms Allen reported to ULU council last night: “The article was not libellous and breached no legal code. As such, although the President was unhappy with the content, it was agreed it could be printed.”
Having been informed that his services may not be required the following year, Mr Fingleton had filled his final column of an article using an expletive 77 times, beginning “F**k it. F**k journalism. F**k journalists. F**k columnists especially… F**k the London Student.” However, more offence was caused as more sensitive topics were touched upon, such as “F**k genocide… war crimes… Al-Quaida… old people… Africa… AIDs… gay marriage rights… immigrants…” This was felt by some to be a breach of Equal Rights policies, although others suggested that the article’s coverage was in fact completely indiscriminate.
On May 25th, on receiving an advanced copy of the summer edition of London Student, King’s College Union President David Dunne responded by sending a message to ULU Council, stating his “disgust at this irresponsible and despicable article” treating sensitive issues “glibly" and swearing “gratuitously and unnecessarily.” He recognised the Editor’s independence but emphasised her accountability to ULU Council and hence “[called] on every member of ULU council to hold her to account.”
However, most controversy arose from the following paragraph, telling the editor “please do not send any copies to King's, we do not wish to stock this issue thank you and any received will be duly recycled”, action which sparked heated debate over the legality of such actions under the Education (no. 2) Act 1986 which protects free speech within Student Unions. This resulted in the issuing of a statement from ULU Executive, distancing itself from the newspaper and making it clear that “Having made our views known to the Editor privately, we respect that it is her professional judgement in regard to what is suitable for printing or not in such cases.”
Lila Allen (London student Editor) in turn issued a press release, comparing KCLSU’s actions to “witch-hunts against the free press, as exemplified by the recent treatment of Greg Dyke and Piers Morgan,” emphasising that “every student has a right to reply and is free to write for the paper.”
Last night, two KCLSU officers (not including President David Dunne or VP Media and Communications and London Student Editor-Elect, Alexi Duggins) put a Motion of Censure of Lila Allen to ULU Council, suggesting that in publishing Mr Fingleton’s latest column, Ms Allen was in breach of ULU’s Equal Opportunities Policy, which as an officer of the Union it is her duty to uphold, and that it “undermines the work of all London Student writers as much as it undermines the work of ULU to have the student voice taken seriously.” Ms Allen responded with an emergency motion emphasising the Freedom of the Press, stating that “blanket censorship of the press is completely unacceptable in a democracy” and “students are intelligent" and "do not need their union to dictate what they can and cannot read.” After some debate, ULU Council rejected the Motion of Censure and accepted Ms Allen’s paper affirming the Freedom of the Press. The statement issued by ULU Executive will be withdrawn, and a reworded statement “reaffirming the editorial independence of London Student and freedom of the press” will published on the front page of the ULU website shortly.
Imperial College’s own Student Media have specific right of editorial independence from both Imperial College and ICU as set out in the Memorandum of Understanding , which is due for review during the next academic year.