Universities, Free Speech & Moves Against No Platforming

As 2017 came to an end, the UK Government announced plans to punish Universities that facilitate ‘No Platforming’ – Elaine Crory looks at what the plans are and how they impact free speech.

Earlier this month, Universities Minister Jo Johnson announced plans to tackle the apparent problem of universities that adopt a no-platform policy towards some speakers, proposing to fine universities that de-platform certain individuals and block them from speaking on campuses. The move is the latest shot fired in the escalating debate about free speech and its limits, an ancient argument given a new lease of life and a new urgency in the era of social media. “Nowadays”, the argument goes, “young people are so fragile and pampered that they can’t even listen to a person with whom they disagree! Universities are supposed to be places where new ideas are encountered, ideas are challenged and debate flourishes. This is a bold move and will melt some snowflakes!”

Before we examine the merits of this new proposal, it’s worth pausing to consider the premises of the argument. To begin with, there is an assumption that free speech is sacrosanct and that this is clear cut and unassailable. But is it? Already, there is a prohibition against using free speech to endanger others (the famous ‘yelling “fire!” in a crowded theatre’) and a number of laws against incitement to hate and hate speech – the latter being very grounds on which most universities no-platform speakers. What constitutes hate speech? There is no universal standard, outside of the court system which already struggles to successfully prosecute hate speech cases, and certainly the standard is shifting; racial and religious abuse that would have been acceptable in the past is widely seen as unacceptable now. And there are a number of listed and proscribed extremist groups, compiled by Prevent, the organisation tasked with preventing radicalisation among young people. We have no platformed Holocaust deniers on a much wider scale than simply not inviting them to universities, despite their academic credentials. At a time when the extreme right is posing a serious danger and recruiting vulnerable, disaffected young people, why is it that speakers of that ilk are now being hailed as the heroes of free speech when Islamic extremists are rightly disinvited?

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It seems undeniable that free speech is not an absolute right, and arguably it never has been. So why the recent panic around the notion that it is somehow under attack? A part of this is down to a change in the way that debate takes place, a change facilitated by the rise of the internet and all that came with it, especially anonymity. Back in the day, if you wanted to call a stranger a triggered snowflake, deliberately misgender them or send them a rape threat, you had to find out where they lived, physically write a letter, put it in an envelope, pay for a stamp to stick on it, and carry it to a postbox. Without the ease of access and benefit of distance, harassment and abuse was hard work. Now it’s so easy that anyone can do it, and when it backfires as it did to Milo Yiannouopolis when he orchestrated the racist and misogynistic online abuse of actor Leslie Jones, the defence is ready and waiting; “it’s free speech. And anyway, words can’t harm you. Just log off.”  Young people have seen this play out in real time; is it any wonder they don’t invite it to their campuses?

So when universities are expected to invite people who argue that this approach is not only acceptable but worthy of praise and encouragement, it goes far beyond the internet and the mobs exercised by Gamergate, the very existence of transgender individuals, and literally any feminist saying or doing anything in public. Somehow, these views aren’t deemed beyond acceptability, and in fact universities face a fine if their students object to their being invited to the very institutions they pay to attend. It seems clear that at a different time, in a different political climate, the lines of acceptability will move – they have before. At this moment in time, while many esteemed British broadsheets daily platform writers who hold abhorrent and dangerous views about transgender people, it is hard not to remember some of the similarly fanciful and cruel arguments made in the past about gay people (6), about people of different religions and different races, and see that in time this too will seem like a view beyond the pale. Is it so hard to understand that, in the meantime, these folks have enough on their plates without inviting those who would deny their existence into their communities to be paid to speak against them?

Instituting fines to punish universities that no platform seems like a shortsighted approach, and it does not come close to dealing with the problem. And while no university should be forced to invite speakers who endanger or disregard parts of the student body and must value student safety above all, this also does not really solve the problem. Germaine Greer may be no-platformed, but views like Greer’s are still everywhere. Inviting Richard Spencer may become more trouble than it’s worth, but the far right is still a growing worry. Pushing it out of universities does not change the fact that students belong to many communities, and many of them will face daily discrimination no matter what stance their students unions take. So, in light of this new government stance, I propose that those of us who identify as proud snowflakes, as allies to the people these people seek to oppress, take the fight to those arguments, particularly when it is not our own rights on the chopping block. Whenever and wherever we can, we need to tirelessly challenge the arguments. We need to be having these conversations at work, in the pub, at kitchen tables, literally anywhere we encounter them. It’s slow, but that is how minds are changed.