Authored by Samuel Gilonis (Opinion Editor at the Wessex Scene), Charlotte Harwood (Politics Editor at the Wessex Scene), and Luke Goodger (Publicity Officer at the Wessex Scene).

In the mood of the upcoming referendum on whether the University of Southampton will affiliate with the National Union of Students and the latest instalment in the campaign of several NUS officers against freedom of speech, and harassment of student societies and media outlets to this end, we propose that all students of our university that were planning to vote in favour of affiliation should abstain from voting until the farcical ‘No Platform Policy’ has ceased to be used to censor student media and debates.

This letter is written in response to the open letter written by Aaron Kiely (Black Students’ Officer for the NUS) that demands the retraction of an interview with Nick Griffin, the chairman of the BNP and MEP for North West England, published by The Leeds Student. This demand is predicated upon the NUS’s ‘No Platform Policy’ , which states that no platform may be given or discussion held with anybody deemed to be a fascist at any NUS function. This policy is extremely vague and has, unsurprisingly, been arbitrarily reinterpreted and abused since its inception and has been used to justify shutting down debates and censor student media in universities across the country.

In his adumbration of Nick Griffin’s character, Mr. Kiely frequently refers to facts garnered from that interview such as his statement, “we find the sight of two men kissing creepy”, and his assertion that civil partnerships will mean that, “children will die over the next few years”.  Using direct quotations from the interview to illustrate the bitter homophobia of Nick Griffin demonstrates that this interview has furthered undermining Britain’s largest fascist movement and not, as put forward by Mr. Kiely, boosted “the BNP’s attempts to join the political mainstream”.  That said, the truism that allowing these types their right to freedom of expression will only give them opportunity to disgrace themselves should not distract us from the more important point that a principle worth defending is still worth defending even if it comes at a price.

Implicit within the assertion that the interview acts as a ‘boost’ for the BNP’s efforts is the accusation that Mr. Greehalgh and the editorial staff of the Leeds Student have acted in complicity with fascism, an accusation so stupid and so offensive that we believe that the students of the University of Southampton should not even consider affiliation with the NUS until the No Platform Policy is dropped and an apology to the Leeds Student is issued. It also implies that there is something persuasive about fascist rhetoric and that we need protecting from dangerous ideas, a concession that the signatories of Mr. Kiely’s letter are welcome to make in their own name but not in ours.

Liam Burns’s declaration in an interview with the  Wessex Scene that universities ought to be ‘safe havens’ from opinions that could be offensive is unacceptable to us who believe that universities are institutions of intellectual freedom in which any thought can be expressed and debated.

There is no person in the world whose character is so unimpeachable that the undersigned would trust them to govern what ideas we are permitted to discuss or with whom and we consider it an outrage that certain NUS officers have declared them fit to assume this role. Mr. Kiely seems to be forgetting that Nick Griffin is a democratically elected MEP, and therefore represents the views of people within our democracy and the NUS has no right to declare that we are not allowed to debate these views. Unfortunate as this may seem, the way to counter unpleasant views is not to stop media outlets from interviewing them, but rather to allow their views to be debated and argued against. Censoring the voice of the BNP makes them appear to be freedom of speech martyrs, but also allows ambiguity over their views to flourish, garnering misguided support for their discriminatory beliefs.
Mr. Kiely brings his open letter to a halt in the fashion of a man, who running blindly down a road, inevitably connects with a lamppost. He declares that it was by exploiting the democratic system and freedom of expression that the Holocaust was precipitated and the right to freedom of speech was shut down. Mr. Kiely’s historical view that the Nazi movement was born out of the right to freely discuss any idea, any time and with any company is one that we reject entirely.

While views expressed by individuals such as Nick Griffin may not be agreeable to those who signed Mr. Kiely’s letter, there are those of us who want our Holocaust deniers, racists and homophobes in plain sight and not given the comfort of policies that allow them to keep their bigotries ambiguous. Censoring fascists is tantamount to censoring those who wish to struggle against fascism which is something that all of the signatories of this letter refuse to be affiliated with.

Relevant links:

The NUS open letter by Aaron Kiely 

The original interview with Nick Griffin in The Leeds Student 

www.nusconnect.org.uk/blogs/blog/liamburns/2012/10/29/Member-led-and-anti-fascist-thats-the-movement-I-lead/

Signed,

Samuel Gilonis
Opinion Editor at the Wessex Scene ’11-’13

Charlotte Harwood
Politics Editor at the Wessex Scene ’11-’13

Luke Goodger
Publicity Officer at the Wessex Scene ’11-’13

Richard Windsor
Sports Editor at the Wessex Scene ’11-’13

Sam Whitehall
Online Editor at the Wessex Scene ’11-’13, Social Secretary for the Atheist Society

Sam Everard
Pause Editor at the Wessex Scene ’12-’13

Bryony Wellburn
Image Editor at the Wessex Scene ’12-’13

Michael Fisher
Editor of the Wessex Scene ’11- ’12

Southampton University Conservative Association

David Humphreys
President of the Debating Society and SUSU Rep for the Political, Social Awareness and Campaigns Society

Thomas Steadman
Opinion Editor at the Soton Tab ’11-’12

Luke O’Brien
Editor in Chief at the Soton Tab

Alice North
Opinion Editor at the Soton Tab

Peter Shaw
Sports Editor at the Soton Tab

Chris Baker
Writer at the Soton Tab

Alastair Mogford
Assistant Station Manager at SUSUtv, Union Councillor ’11– ‘13

Megan Sherman
Campaigns Officer, Southampton University Politics Association ’12-’13

Tim Riminton
President, Southampton University Politics Association ‘12- ‘13

Marcus Burton
Union Councillor ’12-’13

Andrea Sipka
Union Councillor ’12-’13

David Gunns
Union Councillor ’12-’13

Oli Coles
Union Councillor ’12-’13

Giles Howard
ECS Course Rep ’12-’13

Samuel Crabb
Postgraduate (Taught) Officer ’12-’13

Dave Arnold
Geography Academic President ’12-’13

Stephen Watkins
English Course Rep ’11-’13

Caroline Hughes
RAG Officer ‘12- ‘13

Matthew Power
President for the Atheist Society

Thomas Granger
Webmaster for the Atheist Society

Jordan Milton
Secretary for the Atheist Society

James Silvester
Treasurer for the Atheist Society

Simon Boyce
Lewis Wedgwood
Anthony Lewis
Louisa Marie Smith
David Tully
Claire Joines
Jonathan Vaughan
Thomas DeWet Moore
Holly Baker
Jonathan Hamer
Alastair Tansley
Joe Tait
Anna Fry
Ellie Sellwood
Sera Berksoy 

This article is opinion only and in no way reflects the views of the entire Wessex Scene editorial team or SUSU as an organisation.

The Wessex Scene would like to assure all readers that Yes2NUS have been given the right to reply and their response is here. NotoNUS have also been given the right to reply and their response will also be published soon.

What do you think? Please leave your comments below or contact editor@soton.ac.uk.

24 Comments »

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  • Richard Penny
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    I don’t want to speak for the NUS (nor defend Aaron Kiely’s rather verbose letter), but I think the authors here should note three points.

    Firstly, very few people consider free speech to be an absolute right which should never be abridged. Presumably you would agree that student publications should not print hate speech or violent threats against vulnerable social groups? I would suggest this kind of motivation underlies the bulk of the No Platform policy, rather than a desire to stifle particular views (though this may of course occur as a consequence). I would suggest that what you want is for is the No Platform policy to be changed rather than abandoned.

    Secondly, I’m uneasy about the idea the view of “those who want our Holocaust deniers, racists and homophobes in plain sight” should be decisive in this case. Another important reason as to why policies such as No Platform are introduced is not merely to stifle debate, but to protect vulnerable groups from having their persons and identities attacked in print on a frequent basis. In this sense the ‘plain sight’ is precisely the problem. I don’t want to speak for people from vulnerable social groups (sexual, ethnic, religious etc) but before blithely asserting the virtues of their very being being questioned loudly and publicly we might want to consider how this feels from their perspective. I for one would be very uncomfortable about privileging my right to debate fascist ideas in public over the right of (say) a young homosexual to live without their identify being violently or offensively questioned.

    Finally, you might also want to bear in mind the particular nature of a University campus, vs. that of the public domain. Most of the arguments for free speech which you draw upon relate to the importance of free political speech in the public realm. And important it is. But the benefits that come from free speech in society are far greater than the benefits that come from free speech on campus (thought the latter is obviously an aspect of the former). And conversely, the harms from derogatory speech on a campus – populated by younger people, still developing their identities, and where issues such as mental illness remain a serious concern – are possibly more acute than those which exist across society (though not to downplay those harms either). It is not enough to trot out classic arguments for free speech without being sensitive to these kind of contexts.

    I don’t disagree with your desire to protect debate, and free thought. And no doubt policies like No Platform can be misused, misapplied and misconceived. But I would suggest that you consider more carefully the (good) reasons behind this kind of policy. All questions of free speech come down to a balance of rights, and these are questions which can’t simply be answered by quoting the value of free speech per se.

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    Alexander James Green
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    Three extremely good points!

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    Meg
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    Thanks for bringing those distinctions in to the discussion :)

    As a student with mental illness I’ve had my identity offensively challenged as a consequence of free speech on campus, sometimes to the extent that the stigma exacerbated my symptoms and it’d be tempting to agree that the possibility of minority intimidation should be removed.

    Nonetheless, the result in some cases was that I actively challenged the discrimination, the person was forced to reconsider their view and some kind of progress and understanding was possible, only possible because they were able to make a discriminatory view public in the first instance. I appreciate that particularly bigoted views might not be so easy to reason with, but how exactly can we challenge people’s ideas if they’re invisible?

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    Richard Penny
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    Meg,

    That’s a fair point. I’d say you were lucky that the person did reconsider, and moreover that you were brave enough to challenge them. I’m not sure how often either of those happen in the face of discrimination against vulnerable groups, and for that reason I’d tend to err against saying it was a good thing that discrimination be sanctioned in public. But you’re quite right that not challenging these views isn’t sufficient either.

    At the risk of introducing more distinctions(!) I’d say that there’s something different about printed (or let’s say Union sanctioned materials) than there is about personal interactions of the kind you describe. The former (IMO) carry a greater risk of offence and harm (or normalising power if we’re being grand), and moreover they are easier to restrict without violating other rights (as would occur if we simply sanctioned people with unpleasant views).

    So, I guess I don’t see why we can’t permit and challenge objectionable views in a personal capacity (or address them in a wide variety of other ways, such as education, information campaigns etc), whilst also saying that particularly harmful manifestations of these views (such as in student union sanctioned publications) pose a greater risk of harm than they offer in terms of dialogue. Note also that (I think) there’s no reason you or I couldn’t write an article exploring fascist (or very bigoted) views given that (I assume!) neither of us are card carrying fascists. A No Platform policy does shut down one avenue of dialogue for sure, but it leaves many others open.

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    Meg
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    Well I’ve mostly challenged whilst cowering behind the internet (I see “campus” as extending to student media) so it’s not so brave and I’ve seen others occasionally challenge too, so who knows what could happen with a critical mass of aggrieved students ready to give discriminatory ideas a ticking off? (And you’ll be pleased to hear that just like a turkey that doesn’t vote for Christmas, I’m definitely not a card carrying fascist.)

    Personally I doubt that Nick Griffin’s views would be normalized if printed in a student newspaper. I think perhaps that does students a disservice. For objectionable views to be normalized people will have to accept them as normal, and I genuinely believe that University students will actively challenge bigotry when they see it in print.

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    Luke Goodger
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    As student journalists, or maybe as a human being living in a democratic society which has fought wars in order to protect freedoms, freedom of speech is a cornerstone. An inalienable right for which people throughout the world are yearning for, and we are eroding slowly at home. I would agree that ‘hate speech’ and ‘violent threats’ are not nice, but there have been no examples of these sorts of articles being taken off or censored. You must agree that the reaction the Leeds student got was ridiculous and their article did not fall under those categories.
    The No-platform policy, as our letter clearly states, has been misused beyond its remit, and if you read the letter it is clear that the notion of an open ended gagging order open to interpretation has been abused several times. All your points have been debated over in the letter and in frequent facebook and face to face debates with those who disagree with us, which is great, because an open, Frank debate is what we need. Your point about ‘debate fascist ideas in public over the right of (say) a young homosexual to live without their identify being violently or offensively questioned.’ Clearly shows your misunderstanding of the Leeds debacle, the Nick Griffin interviewer happened to be a homosexual and by confronting these violent ideas, you debase them and demean them. You also seem to imply that a ‘young homosexual’ has no defence and cannot stand up for himself, of course it is not nice to be attacked, but I can assure you that the LGBT community have heard all the fascist and distasteful slurs against them A disgusting slug like Griffin will not hurt them (only, the over used adage, clearly make them stronger when he is exposed)
    On the debate of Free speech on campus and to the wider world, are we not part of the world? Is the campus not the nuclei for every civil rights movement that the 20th and 21st century has produced? It is ridiculous to say that the campus is detached from the wider public, and although in many ways we live a protected and care-free environment, we will all have to face the wider world at some point and with open debate, we can all form opinions to defend ourselves ‘out there.’ You seem to have a very nice view of the world, where all the problems are less acute than on campus… Really?

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    Samuel Gilonis
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    Hi Richard,

    Thanks for your response, I’ll try and address your points individually.
    1) You wrote: “Presumably you would agree that student publications should not print hate speech or violent threats against vulnerable social groups?”

    In the US, hate speech (and even threats, provided the threat of violence is not an immediate one) are not only permitted but protected as a civil right under the First Amendment so I do reject the thought that the absolute right to freedom of speech spells the victimisation of vulnerable groups. Perhaps the most important point to make here is the distinction between freedom of expression and editorial decision making – the Wessex Scene and the Soton Tab simply won’t publish hate speech or threats because it would be incongruous and offensive to all of their readers but if the bigots, racists and homophobes want their own rag (which would be a much more extreme case than an interview with a goon like Griffin) to write in then I’m still waiting for the convincing argument that says that they shouldn’t be allowed it.

    I think that the point is made in the letter that even if you accept the arguments for censorship then you are still left with the problem of who is to be censor. Who would you trust to decide what articles you can read? Or what constitutes a dangerous idea? I know that for the authors of this letter (and presumably the signatories) the answer is nobody. I would certainly consider any other answer to be an unthinkable surrender of integrity, autonomy and intellectual credibility.

    2) First of all, I’m not sure that this really needs to be said but we are not, of course, defending ‘freedom of violence’! Other than that I can only say that the arguments saying that there is no right not to be offended and that hurt feelings simply cannot trump the most important freedom that we have (and the freedom from which all others follow) are so well rehearsed that it seems unnecessary to go through them here (unless you would like me to). We don’t live in a cotton wool world, people hold ugly beliefs and profess them regularly and they have to be ignored or challenged. I am not without the capacity to be offended but I also don’t think I’m alone in saying that censorship of those who offend you is a pointless and childish exercise.

    3)On your point: “All questions of free speech come down to a balance of rights”, I should make it clear that I don’t consider the argument for free expression to be a utilitarian one (although I think it has an extremely powerful case on those grounds as well), freedom of speech is worth defending and upholding even when it comes at a price.

    I completely disagree with you about the function of a university. I don’t agree that they are nurseries for people “still developing their identities, and where issues such as mental illness remain a serious concern”, I think that they are forums for ideas and that if the exchange of an idea that could be deemed ‘dangerous’ is going to take place any where then it should be in a university. You drew a dichotomy between the university and the public realm which I’m not sure exists, we are part of the public/political sphere.

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    Richard Penny
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    Hi Samuel,

    So this was my concern. There’s a sensible nuanced argument, of the kind Megan is raising, about the most effective way to counter hate speech and harms to vulnerable social groups. And then there’s a puerile, aggrandising, dismissive, liberty-fetishising argument to be had. My worry is that on your reading, the letter actually represents the latter, and I hope that most of the signatories would disagree with your interpretation.

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    Samuel Gilonis
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    While I am all of those things, I don’t think that I particularly exhibited them in my comment to you… Nor do I find ‘liberty-fetishing’ to be much of a pejorative. I was grateful for your comments as they expand the conversation but I think it’s a shame that you responded to none of mine.

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    Richard Penny
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    Hi Samuel, I don’t mean any personal affront – I just think it’s completely inane to talk about absolute (or even near absolute) freedom of speech. You’re massively overstating the importance of free speech (which given that it is massively important, is quite an achievement), you’re massively overplaying the harms of the no platform style policies, and you’re far far too glib about the consequences of hateful or discriminatory speech in public forums. There’s not really anything to debate. I think you have weird axioms, and you probably think the same about me.

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    Samuel Gilonis
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    Well we certainly disagree about it’s importance. I don’t think that I have been glib at all – I certainly recognise the problems involved with hate speech (although none of the occasions on which the No Platform policy has been used have been about hate speech, they have been shutting down debates) what we seem to disagree about is that I think that the damage done by censorship is far greater. I don’t know what you mean by ‘weird axioms’, in fact my position could be distilled down to the fact that no argument, principle or belief can be accepted axiomatically – everything has to be defended and supported by argument. It is extremely important that people know why they believe things!

    Incidentally, just to clarify your argument – do you mean to say that a First Amendment style approach to free speech is ‘inane’?

  • LRP
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    This is just two idiots arguing in a darkened sack over a potato.

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    Sam Everard
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    You’re just jealous cos you wish you were that potato.

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    Samuel Gilonis
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    What good argument isn’t?

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  • Voting NO
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    Just another reason to vote NO. Our union shouldn’t be caught up in all this petty shite.

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  • mememe
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    “Mr. Kiely brings his open letter to a halt in the fashion of a man, who running blindly down a road, inevitably connects with a lamppost.” – poor Mr. Kiely…

    Reply

  • Josh
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    If you are going to put this article in your headlines section, should you not have the response there too? Or atleast have a link within this article to the response. If you aim to remain neutral you need to have similar links to both articles.

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    Josh
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    Ive noticed the link in the article, sorry for the mistake, but needs to be rectified on the home page in my opinion.

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    Sam Everard
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    Not until we also receive a response to the letter from the No to NUS team. Putting a link to just the Yes response would mean that we weren’t neutral.

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    Sam Everard
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    Plus, the Yes response was the headline for a large period of time yesterday.

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    Josh
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    It may have been the headline, but the open letter is getting a lot more publicity than the response(s). Its not remaining neutral in any way. If you’re not putting responses up yet you should take the open letter of the home page

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    Alexander James Green
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    How is it getting alot more publicity? …That also doesn’t show its not neutral; merely people are more interested in the letter than any response to it…

    Ellie Sellwood
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    Hi Josh, I hope I cleared this up in my email, I’d like to apologise and thank you for picking up on it. It was not intentional, but as I said articles are going up all the time and we are trying our best to remain as impartial as possible.

  • The Cambridge Student
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    Support from Cambridge: http://www.tcs.cam.ac.uk/issue/editorial/editorial-michaelmas-2012-week-9-2/

    Reply