Irony (noun): banning a Student Conservative Society from using its social media accounts because it criticised your free speech record. Lincoln Students’ Union recently decided that the solution to criticism of its attitude to free speech was to take away the right to free speech of the people who criticised them. This sort of action is a microcosm of the attitude to free speech taken by too many SU’s up and down the country, and is a telling sign of the culture prevalent within the NUS and other bodies that view cracking down on views they don’t agree with as an acceptable measure to take. There is absolutely no point to university if students don’t get exposed to a wide range of viewpoints, and ultimately censorship achieves very little.
Firstly, we have to deal with the most common argument in favour of no-platforming: the right to free speech doesn’t equal the right to a platform. This argument is usually applied incorrectly, because it is used to excuse third party agents intervening to prevent speeches in cases where an organisation has offered a speaker a platform, and they have accepted it. This is clearly unacceptable: individual organisations have the right of offer someone a platform – if you disagree with them saying things and choose to take that platform away, that is inhibiting their freedom of speech. Indeed, the whole ‘right to a platform’ argument seems weak; if I put tape over your mouth, I’m not inhibiting your freedom of speech, merely what platform you can speak on. Yet that would be a very disingenuous argument. If your no-platforming involves simply refusing to invite people to speak, then that isn’t no-platforming and it isn’t a problem – if your no-platforming involves removing a platform that someone has been offered, then that is a freedom of speech issue.
Potential arguments in favour of inhibiting freedom of speech seem to often revolve around not giving extreme speakers publicity. This is obviously a logical fallacy, because no-platforming produces far more news stories than allowing people to speak. Likewise, there is a somewhat insulting notion that allowing extreme speakers to speak might encourage people to have extreme views. Let’s settle this once and for all: it is not letting people say extreme things that leads to extremism, it is not letting them say things. Extremists thrive on ‘us vs them’ scenarios, because they polarise debate and make people pick sides. When people have to pick sides you find moderates who believe that freedom of speech is sacrosanct, defending the rights of those like Milo Yiannopoulos alongside people who are much more extreme, and that is far more likely to cause a perpetuation of extremist values than simply letting a speaker speak. Furthermore, you give ammunition and credence to extremists’ views by not letting them speak; in essence, you inadvertently support them by opposing them in this way.
So, why is free speech ultimately good? Well, people learn far more about someone’s arguments by listening to them than by ignoring them. If you want to oppose a narrative, then exposing yourself to their points and understanding their nuances means that you’ll be better able to shape your arguments to prove them wrong. Furthermore, I find it much more difficult to beat someone in a debate if you never invite them to take part. We’ve been talking about extreme viewpoints, but a lot of the time Unions seem to simply oppose views they disagree with (see anything the NUS has done in the last two or three years). This is inherently illogical: telling someone they cannot express their views won’t change their mind, and if you want someone to agree with you, then finding out how they oppose your ideas is a good start in coming up with arguments they will agree with.
Ultimately you need a breadth of ideas on a university campus to actually make progress. If no one ever challenges your worldview, then you’ll never see the need to improve it. If you never hear a dissenting opinion, then you’ll never know how to challenge it. Having a number of different and nuanced political positions means that there will be better policy outcomes, more scope for engagement in politics, and generally more cross-spectrum collaboration on things that you agree on. At Southampton, we benefit hugely from having a variety of dissenting viewpoints and opinions, with worthwhile debates, discussion and campaigning on issues.
Alex Hovden, the Union Southampton President, explained:
‘As a Union, we have a responsibility to represent every student’s viewpoint, regardless of political leaning and or affiliation. The reality is that a wide scope of opinions is part of what makes the student body diverse, which on one hand makes my job harder, but on the other hand it enables me to challenge the University and other relevant decision makers from a wide variety of perspectives, which can only be a good thing. I’d encourage students to continue discussing your ideas and opinions, and keep challenging me and the other full time officers to represent you as effectively as possible.’
The whole purpose of university is to be a place to air and challenge views, and question, challenge, and criticise prevailing elites. If a Union decides that it doesn’t want to be challenged, then it undermines the nature of university. Lincoln SU is just one example: they cited a criticism of their free speech record as a means of bringing their organisation into disrepute, but by seeking to ban, rather than accept the criticism; by seeking to restrict, rather than debate, they brought their institution into more disrepute than any criticism possibly could have.
Finally, the issue of offence is a common excuse for censorship. Here’s the thing: not liking something doesn’t give you the right to stop it. If you are seriously offended by the views of a speaker, don’t go to the event they are at. If we prevent everything that might conceivably cause someone offence, we’ll end up preventing everything. Instead of teaching young people ways to prevent offence, why not come up with strategies to help them deal with it? It’s not nice, but offence is a part of life, and university seems like a good place to learn how to respond to it. In all honesty, if you are offended by something, that’s probably a good thing. Being offended is a mobilising force that gives you the drive and determination to change things and fight for what you believe in.
Very little gets changed when everyone is happy, it takes someone being offended to really drive them to fight for their beliefs. I am offended by censorship and restrictions on free speech, which is why I oppose such measures with every fibre of my being. To those Unions around the country who would seek to follow the Lincoln approach and oppose freedom of speech, those of us who support it say to you: we find your opposition to free speech offensive, and by your own logic that mandates you to ban it.