A question mark hangs over an appearance at the Lewes Speakers Festival by controversial television personality and columnist Katie Hopkins.
There has been a furious local reaction on social media to next month’s booking at the event and organisers have been asked to withdraw her invitation.
A commentator on the Lewes Forum website said: “Such invitations give legitimacy to a racist bigot.”
Hopkins, a former reality TV contestant, has attracted widespread criticism for her comments about migrants.
In a national newspaper column in 2015 she compared them to ‘cockroaches’ and ‘feral humans’, and said they were ‘spreading like the norovirus’.
She wrote that gunships should be used to stop migrants from crossing the Mediterranean.
The Winter Lewes Speakers Festival takes place at the All Saints Centre from November 24-26. Her billing says: “Love her or hate her, Katie Hopkins is impossible to ignore.”
Festival manager Marc Rattray said: “The Lewes Speakers Festival accepts that the billing of Katie Hopkins as a speaker for this year’s winter festival is controversial.
“The festival itself is politically neutral and has, in the past, given platforms to those on the ‘liberal left’ such as Caroline Lucas, Polly Toynbee, Alan Johnson, Jenni Murray and Dennis Skinner. In the summer of 2017, we had holocaust survivor Iby Knill as a speaker and the company has hosted Gulwali Passarlay, the Afghan refugee in both Lewes and Chichester. There have been nine festivals so far and they began in 2011.”
He continued: “I do hold that free speech is a virtue in a democracy. Katie Hopkins (and I am not an expert on her at all and so people are free to correct me here) to the best of my knowledge has not been convicted of hate speech and is thus free to express her opinions within the limits of the law. She is coming out of her own free will and is not paid to do so.
“She is billed to talk about her autobiography and it is not a specifically political speech. All of our political presenters (and we have had them of all colours) obviously face those of strongly held opposing convictions.
“I believe that the best way forward is to find whose argument is most reasonable rather than resorting to ad hominem personal attacks. She is not coming ‘unopposed’ and anyone who has ever been to the Lewes Speakers Festival will see very quickly that there is a long Q and A section after every talk in which the audience get to ask questions of the speaker and to debate with him/ her.
“We have received a number of emails from members of the public requesting that we withdraw her invitation. That to my mind, would be regrettable.
“If you have strongly held views that oppose those of Katie Hopkins, I think it would be better to show confidence in them by demonstrating through reasonable argument why her opinions are pernicious and wrong by coming to the talk. ‘Banning’ her from Lewes or ‘non-platforming’ her is likely to lead her to state to her Twitter followers (which number more than 800,000) that people are simply afraid to debate with her in a reasonable way and that she is a martyr for those who are not allowed to speak.”