Free speech: in defence of no platforming

Jo Johnson, the Minister for Universities and Science, recently announced that from next April the “Office for Students” (a new university regulator) will be able to fine universities that fail to uphold free speech. This announcement follows the National Student Union’s no-platform policy and several related controversial incidents, for instance Canterbury Christ Church University’s decision to no-platform LGBT activist Peter Tatchell. Although I do not personally agree with all the decisions to no-platform speakers that have been taken by universities (indeed I would strongly question the decision regarding Peter Tatchell) this article does seek to offer a defence of “no-platforming” by showing that there is a degree of nuance to this debate.

Firstly, it is worth starting by noting that the notion of absolute free speech is a fallacy. Hate speech laws are found in several statutes in UK law – for instance s18 of the Public Order Act 1986 prohibits expressions of racial hatred – and this represents a clear example of when free speech is curtailed. Admittedly, however, this, as opposed to the no platform movement, is uncontroversial. A point that more directly supports this movement relates to the importance of inclusivity in debate. In everyday society it is easiest for those in power to get their voice heard. This is typically white, middle class men – Jo Johnson and his spearheading of university policy is a case in point of this. In other words, free speech in everyday life is reserved for those who have access to this and thus those that have a platform. In order to combat this, it is important that institutions provide an atmosphere where individuals from all parts of society – notably minority groups – feel comfortable using their experiences in order to add to the debate. From this point of view no platforming of voices that discourage minority groups – that already face so much oppression – is valid because it encourages a more open culture which allows all voices to engage, not just those that are accustomed to being able to dominate the current discourse.

Another important point is that a distinction needs to be made between someone being invited to speak in order to draw crowds and for the sake of being controversial, and someone who is actively contributing to the debate. A figure such as Katie Hopkins will most likely never change her mind and is not speaking in order to hear other opinions. She is, at least many would argue, only interested in being controversial in order to bolster her brand and employability. From this perspective no platforming Katie Hopkins is legitimate. Moreover, it is not as if no platforming a figure like Katie Hopkins is leading to the censorship of her; she has many other avenues that she can pursue in order to air her views. Another important distinction is the difference between free speech and free debate. I would argue that if a university wants to invite a controversial speaker, the responsible thing to do is to make sure that this speaker is matched with someone who presents a different view so that he/she can be directly challenged. This is often a more satisfactory solution than no platforming because it allows opposing views to be heard, however it also ensures that such views can be effectively challenged so that there is healthy debate – not controversy for the sake of controversy.

In any case, the policy of fining universities for “free speech breaches” is questionable. It does seem somewhat paradoxical to force a university to uphold what is seen as a freedom. Instead of such coercive measures the government should seek to win the argument regarding university speaker policy through the art of persuasion and debate – ironically the very thing that they are encouraging universities themselves to uphold.

Article by Helen Taylor

Photograph – Times Higher Education

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