There are lots of reasons societies exist. Some societies offer students the chance to pursue a common interest. Others create a space for students to make friends and build a community in what can sometimes be an intimidatingly vast campus. Others are there for networking and building CVs. All of these are valid, and it is, by and large, good that UCD supports these societies by funding them and offering them spaces to hold events. It makes sense that UCD students pay to help these societies exist because they make the experience of being in UCD much more rewarding for many students.
One might question, however, the decision to fund societies which many deem as not only failing to add value to students’ college experience, but instead do things which many students find significantly distasteful or problematic.
There are a lot of obvious examples of this sort of thing. The most extreme are probably religious societies such as the Islamic and Newman societies. Islamic society regularly run events with speakers such as Abdullah al Andalusi, who is explicitly anti-democratic. Newman society similarly have near-annual events discussing the legitimacy of same sex marriage. Another example is when the Economics and Philosophy societies hosted Milo Yiannopoulos. That is a man who, among many other infamous quotes, has defended paedophilia and has said that lesbians do not exist.
These are straightforward cases in which many UCD students do not want these events to take place and whose lives are arguably put in danger by these events. It seems clearly unethical to use these students’ money to fund such events.
More contentious examples are when societies or their members just do stupid things. An example of this is when former UCD Labour auditor Liam Van Der Spek released a video espousing his opposition to feminism; stating that feminism is “anti-scientific…cry-bullying” and that “people who talk about rape culture consistently in Western culture …actually minimise concern given to genuine rape victims.”
It is important to note that such views seem obviously antithetical to those of most Labour members. Similarly, Van Der Spek does not necessarily hold those views anymore. Regardless, having a prominent member of a society be so openly misogynistic obviously makes it harder for women to feel comfortable engaging with that society. A likely response to this idea is that the damage it will do to debate on campus far outweighs the benefits to the groups previously being harmed, especially since they could have simply not attended the events.
I disagree with this for two reasons. The first is that this would not actually ban these events or societies outright. I am going to leave aside the question of whether society X should be allowed to host a controversial event. Debates about deplatforming on college campuses are everywhere and you have presumably made up your mind on that already. Furthermore, it is such a messy debate that I am not even sure of my own position.
What I am convinced of, however, is that there are many events which UCD should not be helping societies pay for with student money. Many of these events would still be able to exist without this money. This contribution from UCD only makes up a portion of the money societies use to put these events on. Despite this, it seems pretty unreasonable to ask a lesbian UCD student to fund a hotel room for Yiannopoulos given his claims about them.
The second problem with the free speech argument is that a large reason for UCD societies existing is to create centres for communities on campus. This must obviously be balanced with the ability for students to offer diverse perspectives on issues. Nonetheless, threatening to defund econ soc if they decided to rehost Yiannopoulos would obviously disincentivise them from hosting the event to some extent. However, this does not seem a net harm if it means that lesbian, trans, and Muslim students no longer feel alienated from econ soc events.
Defunding in cases such as the Van Der Spek one is possibly a bit extreme. Nonetheless, it could be a useful tool should the society fail to deal with the problem themselves. Again, this simply offers an incentive for societies to be more inclusive and create a better sense of community. That allows more people access to the many non-problematic events most societies host each semester.
All of these societies hold many events every year which are less extreme. If people were not alienated from the societies as a result of a few problematic events, the attendance at these events would likely be far higher. Therefore, if this helps societies maximise student engagement, then that means more students actually access this discourse.
The other common objection to policies such as this is that a line must presumably be drawn somewhere. One might question how we can be sure to draw it in the right place and how we can avoid a slippery slope in which the admin starts defunding events which do not warrant it. This is obviously a tricky question, but it seems that a policy which promises to only ban the most extreme cases could still do enormous good. Some kind of metric based on a large amount of student complaints seems like it would solve most problems.
Even if this was rarely used, it seems keeping it in the locker in case societies decide to be edgy probably incentivises them to practise moderation. Even if there are some mechanistic problems with drawing lines and so forth, we can certainly all agree that this is at least, hypothetically, a good idea.