Free Speech for Whom?
Before we propose where the line should be drawn in this debate, it’s important to take into account the many lines within which we are already operating. I believe ‘free speech’ is an immaterial right currently denied to us under capitalism. So long as the ruling class owns the means to exercise those rights, with a state willing to defend it with force, the rights of the oppressed will always count for less.
This is not to say I don’t believe it’s our duty as progressives to fight to extend any rights in the absence of the conditions for an entire change of economic system. We should be demanding more free speech in our own interest.
It’s important to acknowledge that these incomplete freedoms do not exist in isolation from one another. Freedom to speak, assemble and live free from prejudice must all be promoted and defended as must democracy more broadly. We must approach breaches (i.e. discrimination and attempts to stifle organising) in a sophisticated way, understanding their intersections and contradictions.
No Platform policies are a topical issue. Indeed, a small demonstration was recently held outside my union by “freedom fighters” opposing our policy to deny organised fascists a platform.
The tactic of No Platform for Fascists was first raised in the student movement in 1973. It recognised that fascist organisations particularly sought to organise within education to drive Black students from campus, communities and ultimately this country.
Fascists are treated specifically because their aim is specific: to stifle democracy, deny justice to particular communities and nurture the street violence which terrorises the oppressed. Theirs are not rational arguments and cannot be met with ordinary debate, let alone legitimisation. Fascists must be denied ‘free speech’ in order to protect the rights of the majority.
When NUS first introduced the policy, we published a leaflet which summed up its relation to ‘free speech’:
We reject the view that the restriction of fascist organisations in this way is to deny all freedom of expression; our aim is to make the ideal of freedom of assembly and expression meaningful in reality. To turn the problem of “free speech” from a practical into an abstract question is to jeopardise the position of the labour movement and its defence of democratic rights, and to allow fascists and racists to shelter under the democratic freedoms when their ultimate aim is to destroy such freedoms.
For decades since, anti-fascists have employed the tactic of No Platform to deny airtime to far-right organisations such as the National Front, the British National Party and the English Defence League. Refusing these views the legitimacy they crave, before they are given the exposure to thrive, is about protection not from offence as some claim but from persecution.
I disagree with those who propose to take this policy further, extending it to non-fascists. There are many people with whom I politically disagree or who have made objectionable comments - like UKIP, for instance. While I may not choose to work with or invite them to an event I may organise, I would not indefinitely deny them a platform. This distortion of the No Platform tactic has created confusion, undermined the intended use of No Platform and led to accusations that students will “ban anyone”.
Non-fascists with questionable opinions, so long as their ideological position does not jeopardise the rights of others to exist, should be engaged with critically. Nonetheless, our members have a right to organise collectively and democratically determine the policies of their unions.
Our freedoms will not be won until we seize controls of the institutions that determine them. What is clear though is the struggle for rights for the majority will be harder because of the presence of an ideology that actively denies them.
Others can shout from outside the movement, but it is the self-organisation of students and anti-fascists that will continue to resist those who threaten our freedoms and organise for a truly “free” speech society, free from oppression. For me, that line is clear.