‘No-platform’ is the subject of one of the most controversial debates occurring right now across campuses in the UK. In the past year, subjects of no-platforming campaigns have included feminist battle-axe Germaine Greer, ‘Men’s Rights Activist’ Milo Yiannopoulos, Israeli officials, lesbian activist Julie Bindel, and far-right French politician Marine le Pen. The National Union of Students’ (NUS) policy of ‘No-Platform’ formally sanctions public speakers who are ‘individuals or members of organisations or groups identified by the Democratic Procedures Committee as holding racist or fascist views’, but in recent practice union officers have widened the net by trying to use the policy to target speakers who espouse controversy rather than fascism. While some speakers have not been officially no-platformed, they may feel de facto no-platformed by being forced to cancel their appearances after petitions or online pressure – such as with veteran human rights and LGBTQ campaigner Peter Tatchell – or by being prevented from speaking during the event itself, as with secularist Maryam Namazie at Goldsmiths.
As increasingly diverse student bodies have increased the need for representation, student unions must accommodate the voices, opinions and identities of their new members. Unfortunately, the debate surrounding no-platforming has been largely dominated by journalists and commentators who are no longer attending university. As students at the University of York and chairs of the student-run York PEN, we have been caught in the middle of these debates and feel strongly about the state of freedom of expression on our campus. It is time for students to speak up.
Let’s start with the arguments in favour of no-platforming. The policy effectively denies a public platform for a speaker to disseminate views that are discriminatory and which could negatively impact the lives of students on campus. This is a way of creating a ‘safe space,’ where potentially racist, homophobic, transphobic or misogynistic views do not have to be encountered on a daily basis. To some extent this is justified: as students our time and energy is limited and not every evening can be dedicated to fervent debate, contrary to the prevailing stereotypes. ‘Safe space’ has a different connotation in the U.S, however, where it applies to accommodation that represents students’ religion or ethnicity. In the UK the term ‘safe space’ is more diffuse, and pertains to the creation of a general feeling of safety across the entire campus rather than a specific physical location. But how might ‘safe spaces’ be problematic for freedom of expression?
Some opponents of no-platforming argue that safe spaces are a way to hide from offensive views which you might come across in real life. One article in The Telegraph claims that they are a symptom of ‘pampered student emperors’, who demand that their feelings be protected at all times – and at all costs. If universities are meant to prepare students for the real world, they argue, then no-platforming is damaging them by sheltering them from the inevitable. We both attended Spiked! magazine’s recent conference, where some speakers claimed that no-platforming is used by students who are unable to handle opposing worldviews. They are, in the charming words of Brendan O’Neill, ‘poofs’. Although these arguments raise some valid concerns, their aggressive and deliberately offensive tone alienates and angers students. Students are not mollycoddled or weak – we all know people who have fought very real discrimination and structural oppression to get good education.
But no-platforming is not the right weapon to use.
In today’s increasingly digitalised world, you don’t need a physical platform to reach a wide audience. Through their smartphones, students can access and share any opinion at any time, and from any place – so attempting to stop ideas from getting to students is largely useless. Moreover, faced with no-platforming, talks can simply be held elsewhere, just round the corner from campus property. Student Unions and the NUS should be focusing on representation, not protection that is ineffective. We should trust there will always be people willing to take on others’ beliefs on a public stage. Discussion and debate are the key to resolving issues or, at the very least, to reaching the point where both sides respectfully ‘agree to disagree’. No-platforming is not the solution to combating offensive views. We believe that we shouldn’t see potentially dangerous opinions as threats, but as opportunities to redefine and strengthen our positions. Refusing to listen to ideas will not make them disappear, and avoiding open and public debate risks pushing people into the margins where harmful ideas can potentially become extreme.
We attended the York Union’s recent panel on the current state of free expression on campus with Oxford researcher Tom Cutterham, journalist Brendan O’Neill and Haydar Zaki from the Qulliam Foundation. Zaki’s proposed ‘Right2Debate’
appears to be the most practical solution between absolute free speech and no-platforming. The campaign proposes that speakers who are deemed controversial by the student body must share a platform with an opposing speaker, avoiding ‘echo-chambers’ that can result from speakers with a single perspective talking to an audience in which everyone agrees with them. Right2Debate does not limit free speech, rather it expands it by offering more views, more representation, and greater diversity by pitting contesting narratives against one another.
This debate ultimately falls into a wider discussion of the purpose of universities and higher education. Are they meant to prepare students for the career market? Are they a site where ideas are freely explored for the sake of inquiry? Or, as some argue, are they a domestic space that should be treated as a home from home for students? We, as current students, firmly believe that universities are the brain of society – a place to explore, question and challenge ideas that are both established and emerging. Ultimately, many of us want the same thing: the end to oppressive and discriminatory systems. No-platforming is a short term method, a plaster that ultimately won’t remove harmful views from the student body. Pushing ideas out of the reach of public scrutiny will only help them to later re-emerge in a stronger form. In reality, the only way we’ll be able to defeat offensive arguments is with better arguments.