So Jo Johnson Wants Free Speech At Universities? He Should Tell That To The Extremism Commission

This week the Universities Minister Jo Johnson MP has called on the Office for Students, the new universities regulator, to ensure that the institutions under its purview guarantee free speech. He was commenting on the launch of a consultation by the new Office for Students on how it will regulate universities.
First of all, we should remind ourselves that Universities have a statutory duty to protect free speech: Section 43 of the Education Act (No.2) 1986. This section was added to the legislation amid similar concerns around No Platforming of Conservative politicians. So Mr Johnson’s suggestions are perhaps less radical than he supposes.
Second, there is something vaguely satirical about a Government forcing institutions to protect free speech. Reading Johnson’s comments, I was reminded of the Scarfolk Town Council poster ‘Free Speech Is Now Compulsory‘. Continue reading “So Jo Johnson Wants Free Speech At Universities? He Should Tell That To The Extremism Commission”

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.

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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

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”

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”