This is a plea. It is a plea to all those who have ever argued about Free Speech, Safe Space, or No Platform, which is most of you, to remember at all times exactly what it is you are arguing about.
You can disagree with my conclusions, but please think about the way I set up the debate. Please.
Familiar story: Someone gets invited to say something; that something is considered harmful to some group (not just offensive); should that person be allowed to speak?; that someone cancels, is uninvited, or speaks. Someone is displeased with the outcome.
Almost everything hangs on the particulars. Who is speaking? To whom do their views pertain? What precisely are their views?
If one person says ‘I think in some instances some people should not be given a platform’, but another replies, ‘The law should never censor speech unless it causes demonstrable harm’, then the two are talking at cross purposes. It is obvious, but forgotten astoundingly often, that the following are different questions:
- In what instances should the law prohibit a person from saying or writing something in public?
- In what instances might the public legitimately protest about a person being allowed to say something in public, particularly against the platform on which that person was allowed to write or speak?
It tends to be that in amongst fire and fury, the ‘Free Speech’ advocate is worried about 1 and the ‘No Platformer’ about 2. You may roll your eyes and think ‘Duh’, but honestly, nobody usually notices.
We will keep the two separate and start with 1.
Oppression and Law
As far as I am aware, No Platformers do not wish to change the law. As it stands, law in this country bans libel, slander, and incitement to violence or hatred. I don’t think (and hope) nobody argues that the law should punish a person from speaking on the grounds that his or her views contribute to or perpetuate ‘structural oppression’.
If that changes then the tone of this piece would be quite different. Without qualification, I oppose any change in the law that would ban speech on any less demanding grounds than incitement of hatred or violence. That includes recent Tory proposals. If a person stands up in Westminster University and states that the audience should take it upon themselves to behead apostates, then that person has broken the law. If that person argues we would all be better off living under an Islamic Caliphate, then they have not broken the law.
If the law changes, it will be up to the government to decide what does and does not count as an extremist view. I do not want any government to have that power.
I think No Platformers agree with me so far.
Oppression and Civil Society
So we move to the second question. This is where the real debate is to be had. Let me break the second question down into three parts, keeping in mind that all these questions refer to cases in which the law is not being broken.
2a. Protest: In what instances might the public legitimately protest about a person being allowed to say something in public?
2b. Safe-Space: In what instances might the public legitimately demand that a person not be allowed to say something in a safe space?
2c. No Platform: In what instances might the public legitimately demand that a person not be allowed to say something on a privileged platform?
Protest is easy to deal with. Any group can legitimately protest about any person speaking about anything anywhere. If you ever read a piece written in the middle of one of these shit-storms that questions the right of any group to stage a peaceful protest about Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, or Brendan O’Neill then you can tell them to get lost. No protest ever harms free speech.
The nub of the whole debate lies in the Safe Space and No Platform questions. These are fundamentally about what responsibilities those who own safe spaces or run privileged platforms owe to the rest of civil society, which includes but is not limited to oppressed groups.
Let’s begin with safe spaces. I will say from the outset that I think the concept of safe space has been abused by overuse. In late 20th century women’s movements, like the ‘Take Back the Night’ protest in Washington in 1981, the idea was to reclaim spaces in which women had been physically threatened. Men were allowed to join the march but had to walk behind women. In some public spaces certain groups feel unsafe, and that is unjust.
The problem is that some students now feel their universities should become safe spaces. Since people live in colleges in Oxbridge, let’s say that colleges should be safe spaces, as many JCRs have agreed (though I’m not certain whether this ought to include, say, conference rooms).
There is no good reason to think that university buildings ought to be safe spaces, however, with all the responsibilities the label implies. All that constrains those inviting speakers to Cambridge University (not the colleges) is the law and public opinion.
Remember Nigel Farage’s recent invitation to speak at Cambridge. He was invited by Professor Haslam (a not unsympathetic historian of the Soviet Union) to speak in the Mill Lane Lecture rooms.
What I mean by public opinion is this. Students may protest as loudly as they like and with as many people as they can muster. If Farage did cancel because of the planned protests then that is his problem – the protestors are not to be blamed, as often they are. But Haslam, Farage and those who run Mill Lane’s lecture rooms do not have to cancel the event in light of those protests. They have a balance of responsibilities here: One to the protestors, the other to the audience who want to hear Farage. It is up to the organisers of an event, the speaker, and those who own or run public spaces to make that decision.
It is perfectly legitimate, therefore, for Haslam to say ‘I think that in this instance the right of those who want to hear the speaker trumps the claim made by some group that the speaker makes them feel unsafe’. It is legitimate because university and faculty buildings are not safe spaces. Safe spaces are important so do not overstretch their definition.
It is the naysayers’ answers to the no protest question with which I have real beef. Protestors are perfectly entitled to claim that by offering Farage a platform, Cambridge amplifies or legitimises his views. Their case for amplification is weak in this instance, since Farage wins lots of seats and makes headlines anyway. The same is true of Marine Le Pen or Julian Assange. The case for legitimisation is slightly stronger.
But the crucial point is this. No Platform is a claim made by and upon civil society. One group thinks a person contributes to their oppression and does not think he or she should get a platform. Another disagrees or doesn’t yet know, so wants to hear the speaker. The decision is made by whoever runs or owns the platform, usually with their audience in mind. Alan Rusbringer runs what Guardian readers will be interested in; Paul Dacre thinks about Mail readers; the Union President about Union members.
There is no absolute or inviolable right here. Nobody should think it a moral outrage when a speaker is or is not invited as a result of one of these decisions. It is a tussle within civil society in which indignation more often than not misfires.
When I was in charge of The Cambridge Tab, I tended towards granting a platform to whomever had an opinion they had thought about and that readers might be interested in. I would do the same if I were Union President or a lecturer at Cambridge. Others might be more cautious; that is entirely their prerogative.
But remember this. Safe Space and No Platform debates are about competing claims within civil society. If you think Holocaust deniers should be invited to the Union, you must accept that not all Union presidents and members will agree with you. If you think Germaine Greer should not have been invited, then you too must accept that the President and many members disagreed.
Even when your speech is not unlawful, you have no absolute right to be heard on any platform or in any place. But nor do you have an absolute right to stop someone from speaking on every platform or in every place. That is what I think. But even if you disagree with that conclusion, I beg you to be clear about what it is you do think. Are you talking about legitimate protesting? Or the law? Safe spaces or no platforming?
Go and answer those questions before you heap scorn upon others.