Defending Free Speech for the Far Right

20140128-095704.jpgI had fifteen seconds of fame on Friday, defending the free expression of far right political groups.

The anti-fascist campaign group Hope Not Hate have called for Hungarian politician Gabor Vona to be banned from the UK. He is the leader of Jobbik, a particularly unpleasant far right group that former MP Andrew Dismore calls “the most powerful outwardly fascist political party in Europe”.

Clearly Mr Vona and his supporters have deeply unpleasant politics. But I do not believe they should be banned from entering the UK, and I said so on Al Jazeera TV. Here’s why:

First, its a dangerous precedent to censor someone with extreme political views (and yes, a travel ban is most certainly a form of censorship). It sets a precedent where other radicals may be silenced in a similar manner. Other countries may designate (say) gay rights or environmental activists as ‘extremist’ and refuse to allow those people to travel. In the past, both Nelson Mandela and the suffragettes were considered to have outlandish and offensive views. We all (and that includes the Hope Not Hate campaigners) would have campaigned for the freedom to travel for these ‘extremists’.

Second, censoring Jobbik politicians really is sinking to their level. The far right are very keen on censorship and suppressing the rights of others: we should not dance to that tune. Last year, Roma artist Marika Schmeidt faced an angry backlash from the Hungarian community in Austria, when she put on an exhibition that mocked Jobbik politicians. She was labelled ‘offensive’ and ‘racist’, words often employed as an excuse to censor.

The way to beat the far right is through counter-speech. Extremists have a right to free expression, but no-one has a right to unchallenged free speech. Hope Not Hate’s resources would be better spent ensuring that every public appearance by Vona includes critical voices; any meeting he attends should be accompanied by a protest on the pavement outside. When BNP Leader Nick Griffin MEP was invited onto the BBC Question Time programme, he was exposed as buffoonish and incoherent. His party has steadily lost support since then. Gabor Vona’s vile views should be similarly exposed and undermined.

If a ban is enforced, Mr Vona will quickly claim to be a free speech martyr. His words will take on an illicit sheen, and disaffected Hungarians and Brits will seek out his speeches online instead. They will be exposed to his views without the reality-check of a mainstream voice to counter what he said. So travel restrictions may well have the opposite effect to that intended.

No Platform

I should add a post-script to say that arguing against a travel ban is not quite the same as opposing ‘No Platform’ policies. Visas and immigration are part of the public sphere, and therefore it is essential that even the most odious people are treated equally by the state. That is different from a private organisation choosing not to invite people to speak. Gabor Vona has a right to enter the UK. But he does not have an automatic right to address a particular university or other institution.

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