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

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”

Briefing Notes: Free Speech at Universities

You Can' t Shut Me Up by Jennifer Moo

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”

Free Speech Turtles, All The Way Down

I’ve written quite a lot recently on the topic of No Platform and the wider issue of free speech at universities.  And I am not done yet.  If the reader feels as if I am repeating myself, that’s because I am: blogging is an iterative form of discourse where each evolution towards some kind of opinion is published for all to see.

And I have been thinking about iteration in the context of the campus free speech wars.

After reading Emey’s amusing-but-actually-serious Open Letter to People Who Write Open Letters to People Who Write Open Letters, my mind wanders back to the debate of the past few days.  Consider, once more, the the Tatchell pile-on from last week: an internicine debate between left leaning social liberals. Continue reading “Free Speech Turtles, All The Way Down”

Freedom to Boycott (Part I)

Julie Bindel and Peter Tatchell

Yesterday evening I left a comment1 on a post by Chris Jarvis on the Bright Green blog.  Discussing Peter Tatchell and No Platform, Chris wrote:

Tatchell tacitly endorses the idea that people should not be able to collectively decide the people that they chose to invite to speak at events that they are organising in their own spaces.

No, I replied.  In signing the letter, Tatchell is saying that when people chose not to debate people with whom they are disagree, they are making a mistake and harming their own cause. Continue reading “Freedom to Boycott (Part I)”

No Platform: Political Fly-Tipping

The debate about students and free speech has flared up again.  NUS LGBTQ officer Fran Cowling refused to share a platform with veteran human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, acusing him of racism and transphobia.

Many people have pointed out that refusing to speak alongside someone is not the same as denying them a platform; others argue that it can amount to the same thing.

The standard argument against No Platform is that we should debate people we disagree with, because we will win the argument.  This is a point I have made in many contexts.  But there is a collary to this which is often glossed over:  No Platform just makes the bigots someone else’s problem.

No Platform is just a clever form of NIMBYism.  When students refuse to engage, the people with unsavoury views are not discredited to the extent that they fall out of the discourse.  Instead, they double-down.  Although they may be prevented from speaking in a particular place, they usually take their speech elsewhere. Continue reading “No Platform: Political Fly-Tipping”

Peter Tatchell’s Surprising Support for the Homophobic Bakers

Ashers Bakery

Remember the controversy about the ‘gay cake’?  Last year, a bakery in Belfast refused to make a cake with a pro-gay marriage slogan.  A court ruled that the bakers had discriminated against a customer on the basis of his sexual orientation, contrary to equality legislation.  The customer, Gareth Lee, was awared £500 in compensation.

The case will be considered in the Appeal Court this week.  Ahead of the hearing, the veteran gay-rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has published a surprising article defending the bakery.  There’s a version on the Guardian comment pages, and a longer version sent to Peter’s mailing list.

I recommend reading the entire article, but the crux of Tatchell’s argument is this:

It is discrimination against an idea, not against a person.

The bakery refused to support and propagate the idea of same-sex marriage.  Lee was not refused service because he was gay, but because of the message on the cake.

This is a subtle point but also a persuasive one.  The implications loom large.  Tatchell asks:

Should a Muslim printer be obliged to publish cartoons of Mohammed or a Jewish one the words of a Holocaust denier? Will gay bakers have to accept orders for cakes with homophobic slurs? … If the current Ashers verdict stands it could, for example, encourage far right extremists to demand that bakeries and other service providers facilitate the promotion of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim opinions. It would leave businesses unable to refuse to decorate cakes, print posters and emblazon mugs with bigoted messages.

Freedom of expression and freedom of conscience surely means the freedom not to engage in the commerce of distributing ideas that you oppose.

I’d previously written off the Asher’s case as exactly analagous to the case of the Bed & Breakfast owners who refused service to a gay couple—This blog has previously discussed the issues raised by such cases. However, Peter Tatchell’s article has persuaded me otherwise.

The Medium of Icing

Who would have thought that patrsies are political! Almost 10 years ago, this blog also discussed the Medium of Icing.