A Better Debate About No Platform? My Speech At the Leeds Beckett Festival of Politics and International Relations

Free speech advocates need to acknowledge that our approach asks people to lay their identities on the table for dissection. If people balk at that suggestion, our response should not be to call them ‘thin skinned special snowflakes’

This is an edited transcript of my speech to the Leeds Beckett Festival of Politics and International Relations Festival, delivered on 15th November 2016.  This first appeared on the Leeds Beckett University Politics and Applied Global Ethics (PAGE) blog.  You can listen to the unalloyed version of the speech on SoundCloud or via the player below.

Some Arguments Against No Platform

I want to first set out my views on No Platform policies. In short, I think they’re bad for free speech and they’re bad for the people they seek to protect.

The idea of No Platform is that it seeks to avoid giving someone the credibility of speaking at a prestigious institution. Those who call for No Platform claim it is not a form of censorship, because the person is subjected to the No Platform rule can always take their words elsewhere. Moreover (they say), legal protections for free speech relate to the government, and since the government is not involved in choosing who speaks at a university there is no real issue. Why can’t we choose who does and does not speak on our campus? Continue reading “A Better Debate About No Platform? My Speech At the Leeds Beckett Festival of Politics and International Relations”

Discussing Fear and Free Speech on Deutsche Welle

This incident was not an anomaly, but part of a wider, worrying trend.

Remember the incident over the summer when a woman was detained by the police, after a crew-member on a Thompson Airways reported her for the ‘suspicious’ activity of reading a book?  Faizah Shaheen spoke about her experiences to the WorldLink programme on the Deutsche Welle English language service, as part of an hour long programme about fear. Continue reading “Discussing Fear and Free Speech on Deutsche Welle”

Discussing Extremism and Free Speech on Sky News

I cannot account for why its taken me until now to blog about this, but last month I was invited onto Sky News to give the English PEN view on extremism, free speech, and the conviction of Anjem Choudhary.

The notorious Islamist preacher had been convicted of supporting terrorism on the basis of Tweets he had posted, pledging allegiance to ‘the’ Caliphate, rather than ‘a’ Caliphate.  The prosecutors argued (successfully, as it turns out) that this constituted support for ISIS. Continue reading “Discussing Extremism and Free Speech on Sky News”

Quoted in the Guardian, Praising Debating Societies

I’m a week late in logging the fact that I was also quoted in the Guardian last week, praising debating societies.

If a perception of this kind of competitive debating as old-fashioned and the preserve of public schools and university societies goes unchallenged, then we lose a great deal. Robert Sharpe [sic] of the worldwide writers’ association English PEN sees charges of elitism as a shame, because “the skills one learns through a good debate are crucial for modern life. Political events continue to remind us of the importance of persuasive arguments and good oratory that appeal not only to our rational side, but our emotional side too.” He also thinks the ability to see the other side is particularly important. “The essence of free speech is that we allow people with whom we disagree to speak. Wrongheaded views will be aired. But free speech means no one gets the last word. We can – and indeed, we should – use our own right to free speech to challenge expression we think is unpleasant or wrong. To do this we need to be equipped to argue in public. Debating competitions are a fantastic way to teach this important skill to young people.” Later this year, English PEN will join the Chamber Debate in the House of Lords, in which students from state schools across the country will discuss the issue of free speech.

I was never in a debating society at university but I have debated at both the Cambridge Union and the Oxford Union in my time. Continue reading “Quoted in the Guardian, Praising Debating Societies”

Quoted in the Mail on Sunday

I was quoted very briefly in the Mail on Sunday this weekend, in an article about a new police strategy for cracking down on Twitter abuse and threats.

It is feared that this will lead to large numbers of comments being reported to social media providers or police as inappropriate, even if they were only meant jokingly or had no malicious intent.  Robert Sharp, of the anti-censorship group English PEN, said: ‘Threats of violence must of course be investigated and prosecuted, but the police need to tread carefully.’

Continue reading “Quoted in the Mail on Sunday”

Crises and Conflicts from NewCon Press

My story is featured in this anthology of space opera and Military SF

I’m delighted to have a short story featured in Crises and Conflicts, a new anthology of space and military science fiction, just published by NewCon Press as part of their 10th Anniversary celebrations.

My piece, ‘Round Trip’ is a tale of loneliness, obsession, patience, and the tedious experience of waiting for a no-frills budget space shuttle to Jupiter (we’ve all be there).

The central science fiction idea in the story is that the universe is finite and curved, a theory developed by the cosmologist Professor Janna Levin. I can highly recommend her book How The Universe Got Its Spots and her beautiful Moth story ‘Life on a Mobius Strip‘. Continue reading “Crises and Conflicts from NewCon Press”

Talking Free Speech and Literature Across Borders with Lunar Poetry

British poets can show solidarity with embattled writers while developing their own creative practice

My colleague Cat Lucas and I sat down with Paul McMenemy, editor of the Lunar Poetry Magazine, to tell their podcast listeners about the work of English PEN. We discussed imprisoned Saudi poet Ashraf Fayad, how blogging is the 21st century version of pamphleteering, and how British poets might show solidarity with embattled writers while developing their own creative practice at the same time.

You can listen on the Lunar Poetry website, via YouTube or judt hit the play button on the embedded podcast below. Continue reading “Talking Free Speech and Literature Across Borders with Lunar Poetry”

Discussing defamation in The Bookseller

If publishers are spending money on libel, they’re not spending on new stuff

The Scottish Law Commission’s consultation on the law of defamation closes this week.  If you want take a stand for free speech in Scotland, then an easy but important thing you can do is co-sign the Libel Reform Campaign’s letter to Lord Pentland, the chair of the commission.

Last month I spoke to the Bookseller about defamation reform, after the incoming president of the Publishers’ Association, Simon Barr, said that it was important that it was important to close the “loophole” caused by the different defamation regimes in England & Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.  Long-time readers of this blog will recall that while the Westminster parliament has legislated, the parliaments at Holyrood and Stormont have not yet done so.

There are many reasons to reform defamation, but to my mind the one that should motivate publishers in particular is this:

Another consequence is the possibility legal costs will dent budgets for breaking new authors. “If publishers are spending money on libel, they’re not spending on new stuff,” Sharp said. And the books that get binned, it won’t be the mainstream commercial titles, it’s going to be the experimental stuff – the first time authors, the challenging and the quirky things that are a bit of a risk.”

You can read Katherine Cowdrey’s full report on the Bookseller website.

The Homophobic Jehovah’s Witness Video Teaches Us Lessons in Parenting and Pluralism

The theology of the cartoon is clearly homophobic. On social media people are calling it disturbing, bigoted, creepy and hateful. But I think the parenting depicted in the video is to be applauded and encouraged, for several reasons.

First published on the Huffington Post.  After this was published I received some challenging, passionate and extremely useful discussions about it on Facebook.  I will add some more thoughts about the video and my article in a separate post.


The Jehovah’s Witnesses are going viral. Social media users have discovered ‘One Man One Woman‘, a short animation about same-sex marriage.

In the clip, a mother tells her daughter, Sophia, that only straight marriage is in Jehovah’s ‘plan’ and that people should abide by those rules if they want to reach paradise. The sequence ends with the little girl revising bible quotes so she can explain to Carrie, her school-friend with two Moms, the true path to paradise. Continue reading “The Homophobic Jehovah’s Witness Video Teaches Us Lessons in Parenting and Pluralism”

Briefing Notes: Free Speech at Universities

Campaigners will not succeed in changing minds and changing students’ union policies unless they better understand why anti-free speech policies have developed, and until they offer students alternatives to the banning of offensive speech.

Commissioned by and first published on the Free Word Centre blog


In recent months there has been a great deal of discussion and debate on the subject of free speech at universities. The Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford, and the protests over controversial speakers like Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, have kept the issue in the headlines, and the publication of Sp!ked Magazine’s Free Speech University Rankings seems to have emboldened free speech advocates to push back against campus censorship. A new campaign, Right2Debate, targets the National Union of Students (NUS) and its No Platform policies that prevent controversial speaker events from going ahead.

As a campaigner with English PEN, I support the campaigns to expand free speech at universities. But in recent weeks I have become increasingly frustrated with the way the debate is evolving. Each side talks over the other, and some of the fundamental questions at the heart of the issue remain unresolved. Campaigners will not succeed in changing minds and changing students’ union policies unless they better understand why anti-free speech policies have developed, and until they offer students alternatives to the banning of offensive speech. Continue reading “Briefing Notes: Free Speech at Universities”