Forum for Debate

SCT’s Forum for Debate provides protagonists on either side of an issue or public debate  –  including think tanks, commentators, academics and campaigners – with an opportunity to set out their well-considered, rational arguments and then allow a limited number of exchanges between them. Rather than then hosting an open forum or blog, the debates are designed to encourage visitors, guided by links provided by the British Library, to seek out further information about the issues and engage in face-to-face debate themselves. The  debates could also provide material around which Speakers’ Corner Committees can organise their own local events.

The latest in the series appears below. Previous debates can be found in the archive.


Free Speech On Campus – Drawing the Line?

The right to free speech has traditionally been a rallying call for progressive forces. By the same token, its suppression has been a key means by which autocratic regimes seek to defend themselves against the spread of liberal ideas.

For liberals, John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty, published in 1859, provides the standard text on free speech. He argued that censorship deprives us of the opportunity to learn from views we do not share and from strengthening our own opinions by matching them against others. In his view, the suppression of an individual’s rights can only be justified if it prevents harm to others.

Zero ToleranceBut in recent times, those who would consider themselves as politically progressive have begun to question both the primacy of free speech among other rights and how the concept of harm should be defined.

The ‘no platform’ movement which has gathered force in particular among the student bodies in US and UK universities argues that speakers who hold views which could offend often marginalised groups – including, for example, women, gay or transgender people and Muslims – should not be allowed to speak at their institutions.
Their critics counter that offence and harm should not be conflated and that objectionable ideas and opinions should be confronted and contested, especially if by banning them they are driven underground.

Who is right? Are Mills’s strictures now outdated, especially in democratic societies in which elites exploit their privileged access to platforms in order to preserve their power over others? Does political correctness actually help transform social attitudes and thus bring about change?

Or is it a threat to our freedoms? Does protection from offence weaken our ability to think critically and to test our own beliefs and does outlawing some ideas simply render them more dangerous?

Haydar Zaki

Right2Debate

Haydar Zaki is the programme coordinator of Right2Debate and, since 2015, the programmes officer at the Quilliam Foundation.

Haydar works with universities and university societies both to protect freedom of speech on campus and to challenge extremist narratives through an empowered student community.

He has campaigned for social justice and secular democracy in Iraq and for ending intra-Muslim discrimination.

Right2Debate was established by the Quilliam Foundation to counter the growth of the censorship by some student unions which, it believes, is beginning to undermine some of the fundamental elements of university life including the right to engage, attend constructive debates and express oneself freely as a student.

It is led by students from a wide variety of backgrounds across the country and is active at the University of Warwick and at London University’s Goldsmiths College and King’s College.

Shelly Asquith

National Union of Students

Shelly Asquith is Vice President (Welfare) of the National Union of Students having previously served as President of the Students' Union at the University of the Arts London.

In her role, she supports students’ unions across the UK to campaign on issues of health, housing, funding and safety.

In 2015, she helped launch the Students Not Suspects campaign, opposing implementation of the Government’s Prevent duty.

The NUS is a membership organisation, made up of nearly 600 students’ unions. Its strength comes from the collective and democratic representation of 7 million students.

NUS promotes, defends and extends student rights, fighting discrimination, isolation and injustice through campaigning and targeted action.

Proposition

Challenge Not Censorship

Free speech is certainly under threat on university campuses with Student Unions increasingly behaving like “intellectual mafias”, dictating to students what is and isn’t legitimate discourse.

Unfortunately this is just one of the many negative hangovers from the regressive politics that has taken grip at the National Union of Students.

The NUS will claim that there are only six organisations on its no-platform list. But the problem is that the notion of no platforming has established a dangerous precedent for censorship which, as we can now see, is choking free speech on campuses throughout the country.

For example, by no-platforming the likes of Peter Tatchell on the basis of transphobia, the NUS's LGBT+ campaign has now led the LGBT community to believe that someone who has spent a lifetime campaigning against prejudice is in fact transphobic and not even entitled to a platform on which to defend himself.

So where do we draw the line on free speech? I would argue that any speaker who does not break the law on inciting hatred and violence should be entitled to speak.

But if free speech must be preserved, it is also important to contest opinions which are objectionable. So any speaker who infringes the inalienable traits of others (for example those of race, gender, sexuality) should not be allowed to have their rhetoric legitimised in ‘fanfare’ echo chambers.

I say this because if dehumanising other communities is free from challenge and thus somehow legitimised, it can at least create unrest among other students on campus and at worst lend support and encouragement to those who may be prepared to commit an act of violence.

The answer proposed by Right2Debate is that the Student Unions that host the event should ensure that such speakers are effectively challenged by a contesting speaker or through an extended Q&A by students (who should, if they choose, be able to submit questions anonymously).

The issue I have with the NUS ’s position is that it says it supports free speech – but only on its own terms. In a moment of great irony, the NUS vice president Richard Brooks recently unintentionally referenced Orwell’s Animal Farm by stating “some people deserve more free speech than others”.

Now the fact that prominent campaigns within Student Unions have called for free speech to be withdrawn from Israelis in support of what they call ‘liberation' but not from Islamist extremist speakers who condone FGM on the grounds that challenge would be regarded as a form of imperialism is another matter for concern.

As I have argued, this climate of censorship has allowed an intellectual mafia to dictate to students what is legitimate and what is not, what is safe and what is not.

Indeed, it is clear that the concept of safe spaces has been abused.

The NUS and its SUs are now keen on the ‘safe spacing’ of ideas which can be censored based on how they make someone feel. That might mean outlawing the challenging of some Islamist speakers who call for the beating of wives in order to protect the feelings of the rigid moral relativist. Safe spaces – a hyper sensitive version of moral relativism – have enabled this form of censorship by protecting certain ideas from any challenge and casting the challenger as either “racist” or “fascist” and undeserving of a platform.

So the question arises again: where do we draw the line? I say not until what is said breaches the law on inciting hatred and violence. The way to deal with “extremist”, “unsafe” or “contentious” speakers is to expand free speech through debate, not contract it through banning.

Censorship will solve nothing, especially when the same narrators can pop back up on platforms like YouTube. We have to contest dehumanising rhetoric as a means of countering the appeal of extremist ideologies. We have both to challenge bigotry and safeguard free speech.

Proposition

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.

Response

Reading Shelly’s ‘pro free-speech’ argument makes one wonder how “liberation movements” that call for the complete boycotting of Israeli speakers on campus, or even Israeli student participation in the Student Unions, can have gained such traction under the NUS’s watch.

Why has its condemnation been lacking? Is it because the NUS doesn’t truly care about free speech? Is it that it believes all Israelis are fascist and must be banned? The truth is that the NUS has become less interested in free speech or human rights and more interested in serving its “identity politics” philosophy.

Those who value freedom of expression must not buy into this agenda. There is no “line drawn” by the NUS on free speech. Rather, it has traced a circle around its own political agenda. By doing so, it has convinced itself that free speech is best promoted by censorship and that debate is served by dictation.

The proof lies in one simple comparison. Rhetoric from the far-right such as “Muslims must be kicked out of the UK” is called fascist and is banned. But Islamist-extremist rhetoric which calls for “killing apostates in an ideal state” is ‘safe-spaced’ and legitimised.

As a true coalition of liberals, the Right2Debate campaign will fight to ensure that extremists and fascists have their right to speak, so long as they do so within the law, because the advance of liberal ideals was not won by banning but through the exchange and contest of ideas. Unlike the NUS, we will not be shy to challenge dehumanisation wherever we see it but we will do so through civil dialogue.

I would have more respect for an argument that was consistent and banned all forms of dehumanising/fascist ideas – but that’s not what the NUS and Student Unions do. Our campaign demands that extremist speakers who do not break the law must not be banned but have their intolerant ideas debated and challenged.

Response

Whatever your view of “free speech” legislation, we need to understand that this right has an important caveat. Communicating ideas is usually a transformative experience. However, when ideas emerge that are intolerable to a majority, this right interacts with other legislation.

The notion of the ‘traditional student’ has changed but society – especially the media - is taking a while to notice. Many more women, LGBT+ and Black students have been campaigning to be treated equally and non-discriminatorily.

For example, in order to challenge the institutional oppression felt by LGBT+ students, NUS was at the forefront of challenging the ideas brought into our lecture theatres, homes and societies. We challenged Clause 28 which vilified LGBT+ people and their relationships. During the apartheid era, NUS UK fought to boycott products and information which benefited economically from racism. The NUS should always be protecting students and campaigning for a more progressive society.

The idea that students deciding together in a democratic forum how their union will operate is some kind of “intellectual mafia” harks back to Thatcherite demonisation of “the enemy within”.

Many of the NUS’s critics fail to understand the nature of the student movement. When an independent Students’ Union takes a democratic decision to un-invite a speaker, this is not an NUS decision. The same is true of our autonomous liberation campaigns. Our LGBT+ Students Campaign is given a mandate by students who define as Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans.

So long as the ‘line’ is drawn at fascism, students should be free to host events as they wish. Moves to ‘balance’ every speaker curb that right and, like the toxic Prevent Duty, involve huge bureaucracy.

Will every university lecturer, or controversial Vice Chancellor, need to be ‘balanced’ each time they open their mouth? This is neither practical nor a principle demanded by student communities.

Conclusion

I don’t believe that the NUS’s identity politics has helped the LGBT+ cause. Passing a resolution that calls on gay white males not to stand as LGBT+ officers in their unions plays a form of identity-politics which inevitably leads not to social justice but to censorship, division and restrictions.

Let me give a further example of the “intellectual mafia” operating in the NUS, namely the #StudentNotSuspects events which call moderate Muslims and ex-Muslims “native informants” – and is part of the same campaign that works with the Islamist extremists who promote spiritual leaders who justify wife-beating and FGM.

Right2Debate doesn’t support enforcement action against “controversy.” Great political figures such as Martin Luther King were controversial. Most new ideas are controversial before they become the norm. But we want to see strategies in place to challenge “high risk” speakers on campus such as those who discriminate against communities on the basis of their race, gender, sexual orientation or beliefs.

I accept that “controversial” or “radical” are subjective terms but they are not the same as “high risk” or “extremist”. I regard the religious scholars among my colleagues at Quilliam who call for a more liberal Islamic interpretation of universal rights as holding radical views but they are not extremists. Extremists call for an end to the principles of individual liberty not the extension of them.

Right2Debate wants to preserve free speech and to do so by ensuring that “high risk speakers” can be contested on campus. Without proper free speech and rigorous debate, dangerous ideas will either gain credence and support for want of challenge or be driven underground where they can gain ground unnoticed and uncontested.

How each Right2Debate campaigns is up to its student members. All we require is that they share our fundamental values which place debate over both censorship and uncontested platforms. We want to see these principles applied clearly and consistently. The NUS has spectacularly failed on all of them.

We want more free speech not less. But we also want more debate. Then members of minorities like myself (Shia Muslim) will feel safer on campus knowing that those who try to dehumanise us and call us “heretics” will be challenged and delegitimised.

We want to see an NUS that sides with people of different identities on the shared values of human rights and respect for dialogue in place of the failed “identity politics” that pursues censorship, extremist apologia and tribalism in the name of social justice.

No civil right was ever won through banning and growing numbers of students recognise this. In one year Right2Debate has gained over 100 activists and 3,000 supporters at 20 universities. We are for free speech and human rights and so are growing numbers of students.

Conclusion

Many of the positions stated or implied in Haydar’s argument are, in actual fact, not policies of the National Union of Students – nor even of our member Students’ Unions.

This reflects the point I made initially: true, liberatory free speech cannot exist in full under current conditions. With a ruling class owning the means to exercise the right to free speech at our expense, the rights of the oppressed will always count for less. Our freedoms will not be won until we seize control of the institutions that determine them.

There also exists a misunderstanding, or perhaps ignorance, of the differences between “identity politics”, which in part encourages a form of individualism, and international solidarity movements which are collective.

NUS cannot ‘dictate to students’ on the basis of No Platform and other issues so much as they can to us. Our policies and political priorities are shaped and strengthened by the students who get involved, pass policy and elect officers. The wilful misrepresentation of NUS policy is another denial of our ability to exercise free speech itself.

Our hundreds-strong Students’ Unions with their millions-strong membership is not a “mafia”. It is a movement - and one that will make no apologies for our history of denying legitimacy to fascism. The right to our members’ existence is not up for debate.

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