Julia Alsop: Yes
The role of no-platforming policies is to allow clearer, considered, collaborative debate, free of intimidation. Filtering hateful views offers diverse – and at times, still controversial – views to emerge.
This is not a ‘snowﬂake’ generation shying from discussion. We are educated on difﬁcult social issues. ‘Resilience’ is a word constantly thrown around by Jo Johnson and his colleagues when defending their proposed no platforming ﬁnes.
Sure – in educational settings it is important to talk about identity, or controversial opinions, and uncomfortable topics. However, it’s distasteful to see no-platforming ﬁnes are predominately being pushed by privileged individuals who don’t have their identity questioned everyday.
It is nobody else’s right to tell a person that they must be more resilient to issues that may cause them to relive traumatic experiences, and further alienate them from discussions.
By providing trigger warnings, or not including intimidating speakers, we can engage people, who may have had unpleasant experiences – of anything from transphobic abuse to sexual assault – and allow them to safely share their insight. Student unions, including the NUS, work on a principle that disallows prejudiced people from speaking at platforms under the unions’ jurisdictions. By doing this, they are fulﬁlling their role in supporting all students.
Johnson misunderstands the actions of the NUS and, indeed, other student unions, and has taken their decisions entirely out of context. The NUS have actually only banned six organisations, including the EDL and Al-Muhajiroun, the latter a group linked to anti-Semitism, homophobia, and terrorism. Is that really an unreasonable policy? Giving platforms gives power to those views. It’s not stiﬂing debates to refuse hate speakers, who spout inﬂammatory information. It’s not a debate if students feel intimidated in their own university by historically violent and discriminatory groups invited in.
Ultimately, it comes down to the principle that the NUS have brought forward: “balance freedom of speech and freedom from harm”. Nearly two thirds of university students agree with the NUS holding a no platforming policy. It is the democratic choice of students to withhold prejudiced thoughts from debate.
It is important to stress that no platforming policies are used only in exceptional circumstances where speakers are known to incite violence or make hateful statements. It is simply reductive to argue that no-platforming is designed to ban anyone we merely disagree with. To suggest that banning speakers with violent histories should be forbidden, or even result in ﬁnes, corrupts freedom of speech is misplaced. Freedom of speech should allow us to share ideas and cultures not create a world where aggression and intimidation speak over the reasoned and reasonable.
Becky Clark: No
A year ago, Claire Fox, author of ‘I Find That Offensive’, came to my school to give a talk on freedom of speech. In her talk, she branded our age group as ‘Generation Snowﬂake’: a coddled cohort of young people who attempt to shut out any views with which we disagree.
Fox declared that, unlike with physical abuse, words only hurt because we let them. As if on cue, a student in the audience became hysterical, exclaiming that the school should never have let Fox come to speak. If the pupil had got her way, Fox would have been no platformed, denying the rest of the audience the chance to listen to her thought-provoking talk.
The government recently announced a new plan to allow the Ofﬁce for Students to ﬁne universities which no-platform speakers to “encourage a culture of openness and debate” at UK universities.
No-platforming is the antithesis of free speech. As John Stuart Mill wrote: “all silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility”. The only way for us to properly justify an opinion is to engage with people that disagree and discredit their arguments, but no platforming prevents students from doing just that.
This was highlighted recently in April 2017, when Oxford students attempted to no platform Radio 4 presenter Jenni Murray from giving a talk at the Oxford Literary Festival on ‘A History of Britain in Twenty-One Women’. Students argued that Murray was transphobic, having written an article in The Sunday Times contending that trans women weren’t “real women”. If the students had succeeded, we could never have challenged her views regarding the transgender community after the talk.
The government’s policy alone will not bring an end to no-platforming. The primary culprits of no-platforming are the student unions themselves, who are independent of universities and thus could bypass the ﬁ ne by no platforming speakers at union events held outside of university property.
In addition, for collegiate universities such as Oxford the government would need to give the Ofﬁce for Students the power to ﬁne the colleges themselves as well as the University at large. Ultimately though, what’s needed is a fundamental change in attitude amongst students towards free speech.
Universities should not be ‘safe spaces’ where students are protected from ideas which make them feel uncomfortable. University should train students in critical thinking so that they can go on to contribute to a society free from dogma.
No platforming compromises this ideal by creating a culture of silence in which difﬁcult topics are never openly discussed. The government’s proposed no platforming ﬁne should be welcomed by students, but I won’t hold my breath.