Why the government’s legislation on no-platforming is both impractical and concerning
In their attack on safe spaces, the Tory government have managed to combine freedom of speech with authoritarianism
Jo Johnson, in an apparent attempt to out-buffoon his brother Boris, made an announcement recently that universities will be forced to guarantee free speech. This includes being accountable for the “no-platforming” of “controversial” speakers. In some ways, I agree with Jo Johnson’s sentiment. Universities are places for challenging the mind, and thus they should encourage freedom of speech and expression. However, the reality of the government’s proposed legislation is not only completely impractical, but worrying.
Let’s take a closer look at the University Minister’s announcement. As all good post-Blair politicians do, he starts himself off with a cliché, stating that "freedom of speech is a fundamentally British value”. “Fundamental British value” would be fine, but saying the value is fundamentally British is arrogant in the extreme. It’s also a bit of an oxymoron to suggest that a value of openness and free exchange is the exclusive preserve of one nation. Really, it’s an extension of Brexit rhetoric, and its patriotism suggests the policy is for winning votes as much as changing our universities.
But this is just a problem of presentation. More fundamentally, the proposed measures stink of authoritarianism. When the newly formed Office for Students receive legal powers in April, Universities will be made to uphold freedom of speech within their staff bodies and Student Unions, and will risk a fine or suspension if they fail to do so. There’s something very unnatural about forcing Universities to uphold a liberal value. Free speech should be wilfully, and voluntarily accepted, and is not truly free if its audience is forced to accept it.
And that is the heart of the matter: freedom of speech, when it works, is a two-way system. It is not only made up of someone speaking, but someone choosing to hear and consider it. By refusing a speaker at a University, you are not totally denying them freedom of speech, you are instead denying them an audience, which is entirely legitimate. They’re perfectly free to go off and speak somewhere else (offline or online). In this way, student bodies such as the Union have a right to choose who speaks to them.
Freedom of speech is a right, whereas freedom to speak at a given venue a privilege at the disposal of the hosts. Often, what is referred to as no platforming is no more than refusing to invite a speaker you don’t see as worth the time of day. On the same principle, I wouldn’t want to go for a drink with Donald Trump, not because he’s undeniably hateful but because he’s a boring prick. It’s our choice to hear who we want to speak if it’s we who are going to listen.
On top of this, there are undeniably some important safe spaces that can in fact nurture good and confident free speech. The highly public, often competitive atmosphere of debate is not always the right environment for discussion of personal, sensitive, and potentially vulnerable matters. To have a safe space for some is not necessarily to deny freedom of speech for others elsewhere, and so it seems Jo Johnson has made a potentially harmful generalisation.
Having said this, I do not defend generalised no-platforming. Moves by a small number of students to restrict the rights of others to hear a particular speaker are essentially an effort to impose one’s own views on everyone. This is how I would interpret the Cardiff University Women’s Officer’s attempt to no-platform Germaine Greer. More generally, I support the idea that being exposed to views that clash with one’s own is a route to progress. After initially accepting offence, we should use this to debate, and ultimately show the flaws in arguments we disagree with.
But to entertain the views of others is a decision students need to make for themselves. The government should not have a say in the matter. Rather than effectively forcing students to host certain speakers, we need to reach a position where students feel comfortable to hear them speak. The initiative must come from within the student body to create a cultural change. Realistically, what would happen with the proposed legislation is that students who would otherwise push to no-platform a speaker would instead protest, and would be no more likely to show up to hear what they had to say. What’s more, any interference in student matters by a governing party who raised tuition fees to over £9000, and have put academic funding in jeopardy through Brexit seems just a little rich.
So, whilst no-platforming is not always justified, the government’s proposed legislation will do next to nothing to address the fundamental problem.