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  • Niall Johnson

No-Platforming, Safe Spaces, and the Inconvenience of Free Speech

Photograph: Flickr, Matt Buck

We find ourselves at an intriguing crossroads at the moment when debating the roles and responsibilities of universities when it comes to freedom of speech. Over the past few years we have seen moves nationwide to shift the emphasis of NUS and Student Union policy on to creating a ‘safe space’ for its students, in which they are immune from hate speech and any content which might offend or endanger them.

This has resulted in a growing trend of no-platforming, which can take many forms but commonly manifests itself as banning individuals from speaking on campuses. It can also appear as shouting down speakers. Such was the action taken against Professor Alan Johnson in a debate at Galway University, in which he attempted to argue against boycotting Israel. He was effectively silenced by the audience who proceeded to drum on desks whilst an individual donning an outfit made up of the colours of the Palestinian flag shouted expletives. This hostile atmosphere was created because these audience members disagreed with the professor’s viewpoint. I understand how debates surrounding Israel-Palestine, and most recently the BDS movement, are particularly emotive, but the no-platforming of Alan Johnson in this crude way does not pave the way for progress. In fact, nor does it encourage an open debate which very much needs to be had before any sort of solution can come to pass.

No-platforming originated in the U.S. during the 1970s and was originally used by anti-fascist organisations to prevent far-right speakers from entering into the national conversation. Original usage of no-platforming compromised free speech no doubt, however it sought to act in the interest of the wider community and hinder deeply inflammatory speech. The issue with no-platforming in the 21st century is the existence of an unrelenting, twenty-four hour media, providing multiple outlets for individuals. This includes social media platforms and micro-blogging sites like Twitter. This means that banning a speaker no longer prevents an individual from getting their message across to a wider audience. All it seems to succeed in implementing is a greater level of hysteria around these ‘controversial’ speakers.

An example of how inclusion has paid dividends in recent UK political history was the involvement of Nick Griffin, former leader of the British National Party, in the BBC Question Time panel in 2009. His performance was widely considered an electoral disaster, and it allowed the general public to see Griffin’s views challenged first-hand by elected representatives. This resulted in stunted support in the following year’s general election, and ultimately the death of the party. It is also possible that this extra exposure for the BNP and the rise of UKIP are linked. Discussing immigration, the UK’s place in the EU, and anti -establishmentarianism have entered the public discussion, but at least neo-Nazism is not the ideological standpoint from which these sentiments are espoused.

The last few years has seen a new wave of silencing across universities. The list of names is a long one that includes Germaine Greer, Milo Yiannopoulos, Nigel Farage, Julie Bindel, and Maryam Namazie, all of whom have been banned from entering a university campus at risk of endangering the ‘safe spaces’ of students. While it is futile defending these speakers as inoffensive due to certain unpopular viewpoints, they are viewpoints none the less. The unwillingness of universities to allow these views to be aired and for students to hear them and then critique them in their own ways is dangerous for academic debate. It should not be the role of a student’s union to encourage ignorance amongst its student body. John Stuart Mill argued in favour of free speech because he believed that one did not truly understand their own mind without hearing all other opinions on an issue, and being able to competently defend their own viewpoint. It strikes as a worrying retreat to hide behind political correctness. Like never before ‘racist’, ‘transphobe’, ‘homophobe’, ‘sexist’ and ‘fascist’ are categorisations that are stapled to people seemingly without evidence.

The culture of fear surrounding opinions has culminated in the decision of NUS LGBT representative Fran Cowling’s decision not to share a stage with the gay rights activist Peter Tatchell. Although not strictly no-platforming, she gave the reasoning that she did not wish to speak from the same stage as Tatchell because he is a ‘racist’ and a ‘transphobe’ without stating a single piece of evidence. It was as if saying these accusatory words and assigning them to Tatchell was substantial reasoning, and that we should all respect her decision. I argue that even if Tatchell were to exhibit racist or transphobic tendencies, then it is Cowling’s job to defend and stand up for all of the LGBT students she represents and prove those views to be morally wrong. But instead she has decided to stand back and hide behind her statement, which I cannot help but deem cowardly. Men like Tatchell should be celebrated by the LGBT community and beyond, not derided. I fear where no-platforming culture could take us next in the erosion of free speech within universities.

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