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”

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”

Freedom to Boycott (Part I)

Condemning a choice to boycott is not the same as denying the right to boycott

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)”

The Moral Demands of Free Speech

If we say that these activists have some kind of obligation to debate, then we have an obligation to stand with them

In my earlier post, I wrote:

And perhaps students, at the cutting edge of culture and knowledge, have a greater and particular duty than the rest of us? …No Platform is the political equivalent of fly-tipping.  Rather than dealing once and for all with the unpleasant rubbish, the policy causes the mess to be dumped elsewhere.

There is a coda to this which I think is important to acknowledge.

If we compare No Platform to fly-tipping, then it follows that that the task of debating reactionaries is an unpleasant experience.

If we ask trans* activists (or feminists, or members of a marginalised group) to debate those who have disparaged them, we should at least acknowledge the unpleasantness of the task. Continue reading “The Moral Demands of Free Speech”

No Platform: Political Fly-Tipping

No Platform just makes the bigots someone else’s problem

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”

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: Continue reading “Defending Free Speech for the Far Right”