TOPIC GUIDE: No Platform

"Student Unions are justified in retaining 'No Platform' policies"

PUBLISHED: 01 Aug 2008

AUTHOR: Abigail Ross-Jackson

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INTRODUCTION

Student Unions have for some time used ‘No Platform’ policies to refuse the right to speak to groups whose views they find unacceptable. Instituted in the late 1970s to prevent racist groups from standing in NUS elections, the discussion has resurfaced recently, due to a resurgence of Student Unions across the country debating No Platform. The Oxford Union found itself at the centre of controversy in November 2007 [Ref: Independent] when a decision was taken to invite BNP leader Nick Griffin and David Irving, a British historian who was jailed in Austria for Holocaust denial [Ref: BBC News], to debate free speech. Students found themselves divided, and since then similar scenes have occurred across the country. Also in November 2007, students at the University of East Anglia voted to campaign to end the NUS’s No Platform policy [Ref: Guardian]. Debates have also taken place at Warwick and Bath, where No Platform policies were voted down [Ref: Warwick blogs]. However, at Sussex and Exeter students voted to retain their No Platform policy [Ref: Exeter media]. The NUS has maintained its stance that it supports No Platform in the interests of the safety of all its members [Ref: NUS]. But are Student Unions justified in implementing these policies, or are they unnecessary?

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No Platform DEBATE IN CONTEXT

This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What is the role of a Student Union?
Central to the No Platform debate is the question of the role of the Student Union [Ref: The International Education Site]. In the UK the purpose of Student Unions is to organise student activities and to provide advice and services to students. Unions are also the home of student debating and campaigning within universities. Those that support the No Platform policy say that the first responsibility of the Student Union is to provide a safe place for all its members. Allowing fascist groups onto campus, they argue, will lead to an upsurge in violence and make universities unsafe for certain groups. They maintain that the Union is ultimately a private members club and consequently has the right to ban any individuals or groups whose views it disagrees with from speaking. Without No Platform, they fear groups such as the BNP and Hizb ut-Tahrir would also have access to Union funding to set up societies and hold meetings, thereby gaining legitimacy on campus and beyond. But opponents of No Platform state that the primary purpose of Student Unions is as democratic representative bodies and that such decisions fall significantly outside the Union’s remit of providing student support and services – they are not political bodies. They further suggest that the role of the Union is not to protect its members but to help them get the most out of their university experience. Banning certain people from campus only serves to open up the divide between opposing groups and stifles debate on fundamental issues. Some also dispute the notion that allowing fascist groups to speak on campus increases violent attacks, claiming that there is little evidence to back this up.

How does the No Platform debate relate to the wider context of free speech?
The No Platform debate raises wider questions about free speech. Is free speech an absolute, or do certain circumstances warrant its limitation? In 2007, the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill came into force, meaning that it became illegal for people to incite racial or religious hatred, even if their actions had no physical manifestation [Ref: Home Office]. Some argue that criminalising someone for what they say is taking things too far, and that it undermines our freedom of speech and our right to be offensive. Yet public support for anti-terror legislation that criminalises certain speech acts seems to suggest that free speech becomes a secondary issue when society is faced with social conflicts. Is the right to speak without limitation a right we should be so willing to compromise? Though many would hold that the value of free speech is meaningless if it is not universal, there are also those who believe that some things are better left unsaid. Behind the No Platform debate is a set of issues about what the right to free speech entails, how far it extends and whether or not it needs to be curtailed in the face of danger.

Should Student Unions be talking to such groups?
Some think that talking to these banned groups is a waste of time. In the words of Gemma Tumelty, former NUS President, ‘they are still homophobic, sexist and racist’. Not only do these groups have deplorable views, but neither side is likely get anything out of the discussion. Supporters of No Platform are also concerned that allowing the BNP and others the right to speak may bring sympathisers at the university out of the woodwork and encourage unacceptable, perhaps even violent, behaviour. But opponents think that it is always necessary to challenge unacceptable views and that as intelligent and critical agents university students are ideally placed to take on this challenge. They have confidence that students will not be swayed by poor arguments and irrational fascist beliefs. They also think that if sympathisers do emerge as a result of talking to certain groups on campus, it puts students in a much better place to challenge these views, rather than leaving them to flourish underground. Violence and intimidation are illegal regardless of No Platform policies, they point out, and the prospect of it should not frighten people into censoring themselves or others.

ESSENTIAL READING

It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Ten arguments for and against no platforming

Eric Heinze Free speech debate 1 March 2016

Bath says no to ‘No Platform’

Mark Wright The National Student 3 March 2008

Ban the bombers?

Paul Sims New Humanist 5 September 2007

NUS’ No platform policy

National Union of Students

FOR

Students can’t be allowed to curb free speech

Matt Ridley The Times 13 February 2017

How no platforming works, and why it’s doomed to fail

Martin Daubney Telegraph 18 February 2016

Sussex Students uphold ‘No Platform’

Lee Vernon The Socialist 14 May 2008

No platform

Voices off camera 18 January 2008

Why there must be no free speech for Nazis

Anindya Bhattacharyya Socialist Worker 4 December 2007

Campus Radicals

Shiraz Maher Prospect Magazine 9 September 2006

AGAINST

What ‘snowflakes’ get right about free speech

Ulrich Baer New York Times 24 April 2017

The kids are right

Osita Nwanevu Slate 12 March 2017

A forward motion

Abigail Ross-Jackson and Luke Gittos Culture Wars 13 June 2008

Academic freedom means free speech and no ‘buts’

Dennis Hayes The Free Society 4 March 2008

No to ‘No Platform’

George Eaton On-Line blog 7 February 2008

Just say no to ‘no platform’

Richard Reynolds spiked 26 November 2007

Extreme free speech

James Ball Guardian Comment is Free 16 November 2007

IN DEPTH

Safe spaces are not about political correctness

Gus Cairns Huffington Post 5 June 2016

Is free speech in British universities under threat?

Andrew Anthony Guardian 24 January 2016

Bill Rammell lecture: Academic Freedom in the 21st Century Lecture

Bill Rammell Fabian Society 27 November 2007

The uprising against fascism: Students storm Oxford Union debate

Andy McSmith and Jerome Taylor Independent 27 November 2007

There is no martyrdom in this pathetic denouement

David Cesarani Guardian 22 February 2006

Protect the freedom to shock

Kenan Malik New Statesman 13 August 2001

KEY TERMS

Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.

BACKGROUNDERS

Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Words which by their very utterance inflict injury

Conor Friedersdorf Atlantic 19 April 2017

Students flee reality, and the far right rises

Trevor Phillips The Times 19 February 2017

Campus censorship is a big deal

Benedict Spence spiked 16 February 2017

Milo Yiannopoulos is not being denied free speech – he just doesn’t deserve a platform

James Bloodworth International Business Times 7 February 2017

There must be free speech, even for Milo Yiannopoulos

Matthew D'Ancona Guardian 6 February 2017

Our house, our rules

Toke Dahler Huffington Post 19 November 2016

When people of colour ban Boris its oppression

Kehinde Andrews Independent 25 April 2016

Why free speech always Trumps no platforming

Barbara Ellen Guardian 3 April 2016

We must defend free debate in our universities

New Statesman 18 February 2016

Hurt feelings have replaced freedom of speech

Alex Massie The Times 19 January 2016

Why I believe no platforming Germaine Greer is the only option

Payton Quinn Huffington Post 23 October 2015

What’s new about no platform mania?

Mick Hume spiked 8 October 2015

Why we might want to invite Marine Le Pen to Cambridge

Jihno Clement Huffington Post 15 February 2013

Debate on Raw Radio - Warwick delegates vote for No Platform at NUS Conference

Hannah Smith, Andrew O’Brien and Alex Fowles Raw News 20 May 2008

Education Minister undermines NUS

Sarah Clark The Journal 3 December 2007

NUS: Shame on the Oxford Union for tolerating intolerance

Gemma Tumelty Guardian mortarboard 28 November 2007

‘No Platform’ and free speech

Violet Martin Workers’ Liberty 23 March 2006

ORGANISATIONS

Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.

IN THE NEWS

Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

Nottingham scholar held for 6 days under anti-terror law

Times Higher Education Supplement 29 May 2008

Hezbollah ‘No Platform’ motion defeated by CUSU

Cambridge Student Online 1 March 2008

UEA votes against a NUS policy on fascism

Get Hobsons 27 November 2007

East Anglia students reject NUS policy on fascists

Anthea Lipsett Guardian Education 27 November 2007

Howard leads attacks on controversial forum

Independent 27 November 2007

Plans to outlaw inciting gay hate

BBC News 8 October 2007

Iran president in NY campus row

BBC News 25 September 2007

Students back OUSU in No Platform showdown

Rachel Bennett The Oxford Student 26 April 2007

New terror law comes into force

BBC News 13 April 2006

Adding their voice to the debate

Guardian 4 April 2006

Hundreds join free speech rally

BBC News 25 March 2006

Campus storm over ‘racist’ don

Observer 5 March 2006

AUDIO/VISUAL

No Platform

BBC Radio 4 12 November 2016

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