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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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.
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.
Mark Wright The National Student 3 March 2008
Paul Sims New Humanist 5 September 2007
Lee Vernon The Socialist 14 May 2008
Voices off camera 18 January 2008
Anindya Bhattacharyya Socialist Worker 4 December 2007
Shiraz Maher Prospect Magazine 9 September 2006
Abigail Ross-Jackson and Luke Gittos Culture Wars 13 June 2008
Dennis Hayes The Free Society 4 March 2008
George Eaton On-Line blog 7 February 2008
Richard Reynolds spiked 26 November 2007
James Ball Guardian Comment is Free 16 November 2007
Bill Rammell Fabian Society 27 November 2007
Andy McSmith and Jerome Taylor Independent 27 November 2007
David Cesarani Guardian 22 February 2006
Kenan Malik New Statesman 13 August 2001
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.
Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.
Guardian 22 July 2008
Hannah Smith, Andrew O’Brien and Alex Fowles Raw News 20 May 2008
Sarah Clark The Journal 3 December 2007
Gemma Tumelty Guardian mortarboard 28 November 2007
Violet Martin Workers’ Liberty 23 March 2006
Jackie Ashley Guardian 1 May 2002
Far Left Watch
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.
Times Higher Education Supplement 29 May 2008
Cambridge Student Online 1 March 2008
Get Hobsons 27 November 2007
Anthea Lipsett Guardian Education 27 November 2007
Independent 27 November 2007
Guardian 26 November 2007
Times Online 19 October 2007
BBC News 8 October 2007
BBC News 25 September 2007
Independent 9 May 2007
Rachel Bennett The Oxford Student 26 April 2007
Guardian 11 November 2006
BBC News 13 April 2006
Guardian 4 April 2006
BBC News 25 March 2006
Observer 5 March 2006
Guardian 20 July 2005
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