Comment: Free Speech at the Union?

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“The Oxford Union believes first and foremost in freedom of speech: nothing more, nothing less.” This assertion, from the Union’s own website, serves to awaken some faint echo of a time when the Union was much more than a socially-elitist drinking club and engaged in debates which not only mattered but set precedents, stirred up intellectual responses, and changed history. I fear, however, that it also provided some kind of impetus for Luke Tryl’s ill-conceived and pathetically executed Free Speech Forum.

Few people would, I believe, disagree that once invitations had been issued to David Irving and Nick Griffin, it was impossible for the Union to rescind them without looking cowardly, ridiculous, and, indeed, against the freedom of speech. In passing, the fact that for many outside the University community, the actions and views of the Union are taken as representative of the entire student body is a sad reflection on the media, eager to play to stereotypes, and an impotent OUSU, unable to convince the wider public that we are not simply a bunch of arrogant ‘toffs’ (incidentally I heard a Labour City Councillor use this word to describe the Union hierarchy at the protest and recoiled from the ham-fisted use of class politics – such a stupid way to weaken the argument).

The whole problem with Tryl’s Forum was the totally confused rationale provided for welcoming two convicted Holocaust deniers into the chamber of the world’s most respected debating society. In his statement to Union members, again from the Union website, Tryl is at pains to point out that “pushing the views of these people underground achieves nothing” and cites Home Office Minister Tony McNulty’s line that the intention should be “to crush these people in debate” (sorry, another parenthetical insert: I read McNulty’s line and heard anti-Fascist protesters screaming “fascist scum” and “smash the BNP”; try googling Himmler, Jews & crush).

Unfortunately, Tryl began this defence by asserting “these people are not being given a platform to extol their views”. Hold on, I thought giving them a platform was the whole point, so we could, metaphorically of course, kick the shit out of them? Wasn’t Dr Evan Harris speaking “to say that no platform policies are wrong”? Tryl’s desperate attempts to explain himself bordered on some sort of rhetorical imitation of the Keystone Cops, rushing around and falling into and over moral justifications and arguments while the villains of the piece, Irving and Griffin, stand around grinning at just how much they’ve got away with.

The point, surely, is that free speech should never have been the issue. In the context of Tryl’s monumental misjudgement, the two opposing positions have major problems: if you limit free speech, you deny yourself the opportunity to expose evil and fallacious opinions and defeat them in measured debate, the whole justification for the exercise; if you do not limit free speech, you seem forced into the position of agreeing with the BNP about their justification to air such views.

The right to freedom of speech does not mean the right to be given a particular platform or venue for abhorrent views. The BNP have the right, which they exercise in the face of strong and fair criticism, to air party political broadcasts and publish political literature; that is the freedom of speech deemed appropriate for a democracy. We must not forget that, however awful much of what they say is, they do represent the views of a thankfully small element of this country. But that right need not be extended any further. A final thought: if Tryl really wanted to expose views and crush in debates, rather than get his fifteen minutes, maybe he should have invited Irving and Griffin to debate the motion “This House believes the Holocaust is a lie”. I imagine they would be a lot slower to jump onto our once-venerated platform then.

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