Freedom of speech is a highly contentious issue. Where does one draw the line between freedom of speech, and preventing people from having platforms to express and encourage positions of hatred, positions which could be harmful to society? In the UK, the EU Convention of Human Rights ensures ‘freedom of expression’, although such expression may be limited on the grounds of national security, protection of health or morals, and protection of people’s rights and reputations. However, it should be noted that if, for example, a person’s views do not contravene any of the above but are widely considered hateful or offensive, the Convention does not mean that that person has any right to people agreeing with them: whomever they express such views to has every right to express their own in counter to them. It seems a somewhat intuitive point, but is important to note.
In recent months, the issue of freedom of expression has been particularly pertinent surrounding university campuses and the attempts to ‘no-platform’ certain speakers by Students’ Unions. In a particularly charming article regarding issues of cultural appropriation Brendan O’Neill branded the generation currently part of this discussion as “uptight, fun-dodging, thought-policing millennials” – an assessment that spectacularly avoids presenting a nuanced discussion of certain problematic issues, and devalues the effort made by some millennials to create a fairer, more equal society.
One of the first prominent cases of no-platforming was over Germaine Greer in October last year, when a petition appeared to prevent her from speaking at Cardiff University, due to her transphobic views. Greer argued that as she was not speaking on the issue anyway, the point was moot, and despite her hateful comments outside of Cardiff, she has a point. If she had been speaking on transgender issues the university would have had a much stronger case: in such a case her views could have very well have caused harm to transgender students – both invalidating their identity and implying that hate speech towards them is acceptable. However, this supposedly was not the case, and the decision of the university to allow her to speak seemed like a very sensible triumph of free speech. Greer’s subsequent decision to mention the very issue she claimed to not be speaking on very much undermined the positive decision. As reported by the Guardian “During the lecture at Cardiff University, Greer insisted in the bluntest of terms that she did not accept that post-operative men were women.” This withdrawal of her original intention to not mention transgender issues somewhat reinforced the precedent that those holding hateful or problematic views should not be allowed a platform, because regardless of promises prior to their speeches, they are free to express whatever views they choose on the day. Of course, the issue of no-platforming such views is still contentious, but there is more argument for blocking speakers who will victimise minorities. Nonetheless, perhaps the most convincing argument against Greer made by the original petition was as follows: that the university “should prioritise the voices of the most vulnerable on their campuses”.In fact, this argument, albeit taken slightly out of context, suggests a really positive alternative to no-platforming speakers with problematic views: ensure that speakers with progressive, inclusive views are invited to speak with greater frequency.
November saw a similar, although arguably more concerning in terms of allowing freedom of expression, case at Goldsmiths University. In this case the speaker was Maryam Namazie, and the opposition Isoc (the university’s Islamic Society). The opposition to her speaking was on the grounds of her supposed Islamophobic views, and although the event went ahead, Isoc was supported in their opposition by the Feminist Society & LGBTQ Society at the university. This is concerning, because if one reads Namazie’s expression of her views, it is clear that she opposes not Islam but Islamism: she makes a number of references to the different between Muslims and Islamists, and observes that Muslims are often the people who are most badly affected by Islamism and therefore often some of its most strident opponents. Not only this, but even if one accepts the argument that she is Islamophobic, the constant disruption of her talk, including laughter at her statement regarding Bangladeshi bloggers being hacked to death and resulting in Isoc members being removed by security, did little for their case and their supposed desire for a ‘safe space’. Of course, Isoc are free to protest against a speaker they disagree with, but not at the expense of preventing that person from expressing their views. Protesters against Greer, whose views are certainly more overtly hateful, whatever one’s opinion of Namazie, at least reportedly “turned up to protest peacefully” and notably were not removed by security.
However the most bizarre, tenuous and recent rejection of a speaker is that of Peter Tatchell – denounced by NUS LGBT officer Fran Cowling for signing an open letter on free speech. According to Cowling, this makes Tatchell by association transphobic as the letter cites the no-platforming of speakers deemed to be transphobic as wrong. Given that the letter never implies that the signatories agree with such views, and given that surely the strongest way to oppose someone who you disagree with is to present an argument stronger than theirs, it seems odd that Cowling’s response is to refuse to share a stage with him.
It seems like there is no easy answer regarding how to deal with people who propagate ideas that particular groups, particularly minorities, disagree with. Of course, hateful views very much have the capacity to hurt the the people who they are aimed at, and if allowed to become the dominant narrative in a society, could be very dangerous indeed. However, freedom of expression is part of a democratic society, even if some views are less than savoury. Therefore, surely the best course of action is not to completely block the views of those who hold hateful opinions, but to contrast them with positive opinions that foster a healthier, less exclusive society. If Greer is transphobic, then invite lots of speakers who fight for transgender rights. If Isoc feel Namazie is Islamophobic, invite Muslim speakers who fight against Islamophobia and enlighten students on the positives of the Muslim community. If Tatchell signed a letter that one considers problematic, debate him. No-platforming, or attempted no-platforming, doesn’t actively benefit the group the speaker discriminates against. Bringing in speakers in support of those minorities might.