TOPIC GUIDE: No Platform 2017
"No platform policies damage free speech"
PUBLISHED: 26 May 2017
AUTHOR: Anwar Oduro-Kwarteng
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This spring, students at the University of Oxford called for Radio 4 presenter Jenni Murray to be refused permission to speak at the Oxford Literary festival [Ref: The Times], because of comments she made regarding the transgender community [Ref: Telegraph]. Although Murray still spoke at the festival, this was the latest incident in which attempts have been made to prevent controversial speakers from having a platform on university campuses. Conservative commentators such as Milo Yiannapoulos [Ref: Guardian] and Ann Coulter [Ref: New York Times], as well as civil rights campaigner Peter Tatchell [Ref: Guardian], and feminist Germaine Greer [Ref: BBC News], have all had speaking invitations rescinded in the UK and America, because of the offensive views they are said to hold. As such, the debate surrounding the parameters of free speech, and who should and shouldn’t be afforded a platform to air their views, has become hotly contested. Supporters of no platform policies claim that: “Free expression is not and has never been limitless” [Ref: Independent], and argue that restrictions to free speech in some circumstances are necessary, and that student unions and other institutions do not have an obligation to offer people a platform, because “free speech means the right to speak, not the right to a college platform.” [Ref: New Republic] For critics though, the phenomena of no platforming is indicative of a dangerous diminishing of the public sphere, where people are no longer free to express their opinions, and where students are protected from challenging ideas [Ref: spiked]. And although: “Many think the best way to tackle racism, sexism, or any other idea of which they disapprove, is simply to silence its proponents” [Ref: The Times], critics of no platform policies maintain that: “The free interchange of ideas must win out” [Ref: New Statesman] in order for us to live in a plural, tolerant and free society. So, do no platform policies threaten free speech on campus?
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.
No Platform - then, and now
Defined as preventing people who hold views that are unacceptable or offensive from contributing to a public debate or meeting [Ref: Oxford Dictionaries], no platform policies were first instituted in the UK in 1974 by the National Union of Students (NUS), and were intended to isolate the National Front and other political organisations that were known to incite racism and violence [Ref: Guardian]. At the time, it was thought that debating fascist organisations like the National Front in a public forum would legitimise their views, and render them respectable and mainstream. But today, it could be argued that the policy has been expanded – with some suggesting that rather than using no platform policies against far right political parties, it is now also directed against individuals who they disagree with. And for columnist Sarah Ditum, this is hugely problematic for free speech, because: “The ability to debate competing viewpoints is one of the foundations of democratic society, and as dissent is elevated to the status of offence and then to hate speech, the consequences become alarming.” [Ref: New Statesman] On the other hand, supporters are quick to point out that: “Freedom of expression is not an unchanging absolute” [Ref: New York Times], meaning that society has to continually appraise the parameters of speech, and no platform is an extension of these value judgements. Therefore, a key aspect of the discussion is assessing the value of public debate – are all opinions of an equal worth, or are some beyond the pale?
Free speech, no ifs no buts?
According to critics, no platform policies on campus do not just have implications for students, but for wider society, because: “What is at stake is…free debate, the process by which good ideas trump bad ones” [Ref: New Statesman]. They argue that the principle of free expression and debate is fundamental to an open society, forming the basis of progress, liberalism and democracy, as “free speech is only working properly if you can still hear the people you don’t agree with.” [Ref: Guardian] And in an atmosphere where as many as 63% of university students support no platform policies in the UK [Ref: Oxford Student], some are concerned that basic Enlightenment principles are being lost, in an attempt to protect young people from ideas that they may find offensive or disagree with [Ref: Guardian]. For columnist Matthew D’Ancona, this is a mistake, because in a plural society in which people are free to hold controversial opinions, we need more robust debate, not less. And in order to counter people whose views they disagree with, students need to “take them on, repeatedly, in every conceivable setting” [Ref: Guardian], rather than no platform them. As an example, writer Alex Massie suggests that it was the controversial appearance of former BNP leader Nick Griffin on Question Time in 2009, which began the demise of the party – as his views were given a platform, and his ideas were openly debated and rejected [Ref: The Times]. Similarly, others critique the policy of no platform as being the very anathema of free speech – deciding who can and can’t speak, whose voice should or shouldn’t be heard, based on who you do or do not agree with, does not create an environment ripe for the free-flowing exchange of ideas, they argue. As one free speech advocate points out: “Universities are supposed to be where the ideas of the future are forged…University is supposed to be a place of debate and learning. If students can’t handle the clash of ideas in a place as safe and cosy as their own campus, how will they fare when they leave university?” [Ref: spiked] Furthermore, others caution that no platform policies are the result of identity politics, and state that controversial ideas shouldn’t be seen as dangerous to students, because “feeling uncomfortable, threatened, unsafe or offended…do not constitute harm.” [Ref: Aeon]
Free speech and the public good
Former president of the NUS Malia Bouattia, argues that no platform policies are not censorship or a threat to free speech, and are grounded in the philosophical harm principle established by John Stuart Mill [Ref: Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy]. Echoing Mill, she says that: “Freedom of speech exists insofar as it does not infringe upon the rights of others. If freedom of expression is a universal right for all, it is necessary that it is not used to deprive the rights of others.” [Ref: Huffington Post] In this way, Bouattia claims that giving views which could be considered openly racist or homophobic a stage, risks legitimising them, and infringes on the safety of vulnerable or minority groups on campus [Ref: Huffington Post], because: “Speech has consequences”, and certain types of speech, “cause real, measurable damage” [Ref: Patheos]. Similarly, activists point to the recent incident at Middlebury College in America, in which controversial author of the ‘Bell Curve’ Charles Murray, had a speech shut down by protesters due to his views on racial hierarchy [Ref: Washington Post]. Supporters argue that his research is used by racists to legitimise their opinions on black and Latino inferiority, and that it is granting individuals like him speaking opportunities, rather than no platform policies, which are the real threat to liberal values [Ref: Slate]. Others reject the notion that everyone must be given a platform in order for their views to be refuted, and academic Ulrich Baer observes that: “The idea of free speech does not mean a blanket permission to say anything anybody thinks” [Ref: New York Times]. He argues that free speech is a public good, and “that means balancing the inherent value of a given view, with the obligation to ensure that other members of a given community can participate in discourse as fully recognised members of that community”, and if “those views invalidate the humanity of some people, they restrict speech as a public good.” [Ref: New York Times] An example of this in action, is when students at Brunel University walked out on media personality Katie Hopkins last autumn [Ref: Guardian]. They defended their actions by arguing that on balance her views are not worth engaging with, as they add nothing intellectually to serious debates taking place in society [Ref: Huffington Post]. So, is it vital for free speech that all opinions are given a platform so that they can be scrutinised and interrogated? Or are no platform advocates right to assert that some opinions are so offensive, divisive and harmful, that “there is no inherent value to be gained from debating them in public” [Ref: New York Times]?
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.
Eric Heinze Free speech debate 1 March 2016
Monica Richter Aeon 14 January 2016
National Union of Students
Matt Ridley The Times 13 February 2017
Martin Daubney Telegraph 18 February 2016
Peter Tatchell Telegraph 15 February 2016
Sarah Ditum New Statesman 18 March 2014
Aaron R. Hanlon New Republic 24 April 2017
Ulrich Baer New York Times 24 April 2017
Osita Nwanevu Slate 12 March 2017
Malia Bouattia Independent 14 February 2017
Gus Cairns Huffington Post 5 June 2016
Andrew Anthony Guardian 24 January 2016
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.
Conor Friedersdorf Atlantic 19 April 2017
Dan Arel Patheos 20 February 2017
Trevor Phillips The Times 19 February 2017
Benedict Spence spiked 16 February 2017
Malia Bouattia Huffington Post 10 February 2017
James Bloodworth International Business Times 7 February 2017
Matthew D'Ancona Guardian 6 February 2017
Ali Milani Huffington Post 26 November 2016
Toke Dahler Huffington Post 19 November 2016
Kehinde Andrews Independent 25 April 2016
Barbara Ellen Guardian 3 April 2016
Sean Faye Independent 19 February 2016
New Statesman 18 February 2016
Alex Massie The Times 19 January 2016
Will Hutton Guardian 1 November 2015
Payton Quinn Huffington Post 23 October 2015
Mick Hume spiked 8 October 2015
Jihno Clement Huffington Post 15 February 2013
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.
New York Times 24 April 2017
Huffington Post 22 April 2017
Guardian 20 April 2017
The Times 3 April 2017
The Times 2 April 2017
Telegraph 5 March 2017
Washington Post 4 March 2017
Guardian 13 February 2017
Guardian 2 February 2017
Guardian 26 November 2016
Independent 8 November 2016
Independent 27 September 2016
Oxford Student 1 May 2016
BBC News 23 October 2015
BBC Radio 4 12 November 2016
BBC History of Ideas 7 November 2014
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