Freedom of Speech doesn’t mean you get whatever platform you want

TIM SQUIRRELL, President of the Cambridge Union, reminds us about what freedom of speech really means

Recently, a student society called Oxford Students for Life had planned to run a debate in Christ’s Church College, Oxford.

The debate was entitled “This House believes that abortion culture harms us all”. After pressure from a number of different groups within the college and the wider university, the college authorities decided not to allow the debate to go ahead in their venue, and OSFL were unable to find an alternative venue who would take them.

One of the speakers involved, Tim Stanley, says that this has been a tragic loss for freedom of expression, and that ‘free speech is under assault on campus’. Note that his free speech has been crushed so absolutely that he has had to resort to writing about it in his weekly Telegraph column. Daring to criticise his view landed me in a lengthy twitter spat, where I was railed against for questioning the uncritical notion of ‘free speech’ Stanley puts forward, not least because of my position as the President of the Cambridge Union.

If for some reason you are morbidly fascinated with the car-crash-in-slow-motion that is an argument developing on Twitter, you can read the majority of the resulting exchange here.

The argument was essentially that, as the head of a debating society, I ought to uncritically embrace freedom of speech as a fundamental right. Leaving aside the irony of expecting a lack of critical thought, I just wanted to expand on what freedom of speech really means in the context of debating important things.


The other speaker, Brendan O’Neill, says we are the ‘enemies of free speech’ – I’ll take it

When we choose to run a particular debate, there are five things we have to think about. The first is what will actually be said in the debate – if there’s going to be hate speech or incitement to violence, that’s generally a bad thing, and most people agree on that.

The ‘no platform’ policy of the NUS highlights the second issue of importance, which is who gets to speak. Part of the problem with the OSFL debate was that the speaker panel was entirely men, who have had and will have no experience of the physical and emotional ramifications of abortion or its restriction. In seeking to run a good debate, we try to make sure that those who have the most stake in it are represented on the panel. It’s not enough that they’re in the audience – from experience, there is a massive power differential between audience members and speakers which cannot usually be bridged.

Not only that, but there are some individuals whose presence in a space can make people feel unsafe. For example, during my time at the Union we had to make a decision as to whether to invite Mike Tyson to speak, and we decided against it – partly because we knew that it would further alienate those who already considered us a thoroughly reactionary institution, but also because we felt that we had a social responsibility to our members not to invite a convicted rapist into their institution.

Freedom of speech vs. freedom of speech

Freedom of speech vs. freedom of speech

This leads on to the third thing: where the debate takes place. Much of the criticism of those in Oxford who campaigned to get the OSFL debate shut down, focuses on the role of universities as facilitators of debate and freedom of expression.

The problem is that universities are also our homes. If the debate were to happen in an unaffiliated institution we would still have the right to protest it peacefully, but we could not shut it down. However, the residents of a college must have the right to decide that an event should not be run there – it is not only their right to feel safe in a space that they call their home, but it is the obligation of the college to make it safe. Here at the Union we have less of a problem because people don’t live within our building, but if our members decide that they do not wish for us to host a particular individual, or hold a particular debate, they are within their rights to attempt to prevent it.

Fourth and fifth, we have to think about what is debated, and how we frame it. If I ran a debate, for example, on miscegenation, I would be roundly condemned as a bigot and a racist, and rightly so. Some things simply aren’t up for discussion. ‘Should we euthanise all the gays?’ is not a topic which we should ever debate, because it’s simply irresponsible to do so. Debates, particularly those held in prestigious institutions like ours, have impacts on those outside of the room. When the Cambridge Union hosted Marine le Pen in 2013, she put a note on her website to say that she’d spoken here, using it as a legitimation of her status as a politician. We have to consider the social context in which debates happen, and the potential consequences of them.

How we frame debates also matters – if I want to run a debate on, say, abortion, I have to think about the way I phrase the motion. There are, contrary to the defenders of absolute free speech, good and bad ways to talk about a subject. ‘This House would ban sex-selective abortions’ is a topical issue which can lead to a high quality but also sensitive debate. ‘This House believes abortion culture harms us all’ is an irresponsible and frankly bad motion. It presumes that something called ‘abortion culture’ exists, itself a loaded proposition, and then also presumes that it is prevalent in our society.

You should have expected us

You should have expected us

At one point in our argument I was told by Tim Stanley that the Union used to ‘stand for something’, and that it would be sad if I were representative of my generation’s Cambridge Union. I’m proud of my generation’s Union. I’m proud that we think critically about what it means to give someone a platform, or to debate an issue. I’m proud that we’ve started to consider the social impact of debates on those that they concern, rather than believing them to be academic exercises which happen in an intellectual vacuum.

Debates have consequences. The discussion which we choose to have, who we choose to include in them, and where we choose to have them, have consequences.

It’s about time we recognised that and started thinking responsibly and considerately about freedom of speech.

University of Cambridge