Debates surrounding Freedom of Speech tend to be highly contentious: on one hand, they enshrine people’s right to criticise governments, companies, political ideologies and religions, while on the other, they allow racists, homophobes, sexists and fascists the opportunity to spread their views. It is for this reason that Freedom of Speech has taken a place amongst my favourite topics for debate. Currently, our university holds a No Platform policy, which asserts that no person or organisation that the NUS consider racist or fascist (most notably the BNP) should be given a platform to speak. This prohibits any individuals or members of organisations identified by the Democratic Procedures Committee as holding racist or fascist views from standing for election to any NUS position, or from attending or speaking at any NUS function or conference.
However, the policy has often been criticised as overly censorious by students. During a recent Union Parliament, Emma Revell submitted a white paper proposing an Open Platform policy “ensuring free speech and student group autonomy”. The paper argues that “offense is subjective, what some people find distasteful others may not” and that under the current policy “guests invited by the University to speak have been viewed by some as offensive and protests have occurred peacefully, students have been able to register their offense without the speaker being banned”.
During an interview, Emma explained that “it’s a matter of principle, as University is the first place you come away from home on your own, and you’re exposed to so many different experiences, I think free speech, exchange of ideas, debate and learning about other points of view should be one of them. That doesn’t necessarily mean you agree with them”. Emma went on to say that she “wants to change it to an Open Platform policy, which says that if a society want to invite a fascist speaker, for whatever reason, maybe to tear them apart, to put them in front of four people who disagree and watch them crash and burn, then they should be able to do that”.
In the true spirit of Freedom of Speech, I sought the opinions of current members of Union of Parliament. The replies I received were mixed, presenting strong arguments for and against Emma’s proposal. Jamie Hill, Science and Engineering Officer provided the most fervent argument in favour of the proposal, stating that he believes “the current No Platform Policy is detrimental to free speech” and is “yet more unnecessary student mollycoddling influenced by the NUS and above all insulting to the intelligence of the adults studying at this University who are members of the Union by default. If we wanted to wrap people in cotton wool and prevent them from gaining valuable life experience, then we would be a crèche; not a University Students’ Union”. Educational Officer Elect Michael Rubin disagreed, stating that “it’s not a question of free speech, but a question of ensuring the Students’ Union is a safe and inclusive space for all students. Allowing racist and fascist organisations into our SU and onto our campus breaks the pledge we’ve made to put our members’ wellbeing first. We know that racists and fascists aren’t interested in a debate, and we should never be complicit in allowing them a platform to spread their bigotry and hatred”.
It’s this line of argument concerning the wellbeing of students that seems the most salient point of debate. Alexia Karageorghis, Medicine, Biological Sciences and Psychology Officer, stated she was against the proposal: “I support the right to freedom of speech, but I believe there’s a difference between allowing freedom of speech and condoning the existence of hateful groups on campus. I’m not going to be so patronising as to suggest students are incapable of making their own decisions, but by giving homophobic and fascist views a place in the university, it could potentially send the message that these views are acceptable”. In a reply to this type of argument, Emma believes that her proposal could enhance the debate against sexism, homophobia and racism. She explained that “as a politics student, I read John Stuart Mill, and in On Liberty particularly, he says the reason you shouldn’t ban Freedom of Speech is because if you ban people who disagree with you, you stop being able to justify to yourself what’s right”. She cites the example of a recent debate at the University featuring Mail on Sunday writer Peter Hitchens, which she says “backed up a lot of the things I think, hearing him speak against them, it made me realise why he held the views he did, and why I disagreed with him”. She hopes the proposal will “shore up the debate… we want to challenge homophobia, racism and sexism on campus, and I think pretending it doesn’t exist is not the way to do it!”
Emma’s proposal will be submitted for discussion to Union Parliament on June 11. Whether you agree or disagree with the proposal, exercise your right to Freedom of Speech and voice your opinion!