Free speech on campus and beyond

Submitted by AWL on 17 February, 2015 - 6:14 Author: Omar Raii

We are living in a time when freedom of expression is being curtailed on many different fronts.

On February 14 in Copenhagen, a meeting debating blasphemy and the right to offend was cut short by a gunman apparently determined to execute Lars Vilks, a Swedish cartoonist known for his cartoons of Muhammad. The gunman managed to kill a 55 year old audience member and followed this by killing a Jewish security guard outside a synagogue the following day.

Is this going to be the inevitable consequence of doing things considered blasphemous by some fanatics? Will the political and cultural atmosphere be such that self-censorship is the rule over everything critical of religion, any religion? How can any thoughtful person, never mind a socialist, now organise a public meeting in Denmark or anywhere in Europe knowing that the result could be that an inquisitive attendee is killed for simply attending such a meeting?

The person tragically killed may have attended the meeting to disagree with the cartoonist. We will never know because this kind of free and open discussion was exactly what the gunman was trying to stop.

The arena du jour where it has become a regular occurrence for free speech to be curtailed is exactly the place that is supposed to embody the idea of debate and free discussion: the university.

Back in the 70s and 80s, the leading figures calling for bans on certain films or publications were religious conservative groups and figures such as Mary Whitehouse, who would rally against sex on TV or films like Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Now the main places where you’re likely to see songs (like Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines) or publications (like the Sun) successfully banned is in student unions.

The American comedian Chris Rock has famously stated that he no longer plays gigs at college campuses as students are simply “too conservative”. We take his point.

Banning in student unions is usually justifed on the basis of wanting the campus to be a safer spaces for students. Hence Socialist Workers Party societies being banned by some student unions because of the SWP’s appalling abuse of power over allegations of rape by a leading member of their party. Or, to take another example, at Manchester University last month the Secularist and Humanist Society was told it could not display the front cover of Charlie Hebdo because its depiction of Muhammad would “offend Muslim students”.

Such moves may be well meaning, but they contradict fundamental principles (freedom of political association, in the case of the SWP) or are patronising attempts to stop anything that could be remotely regarded as offensive from being seen or heard. A further problem is the inevitable, lack of consistency.

When banning certain speakers, or records or whatever, for having offensive views, who gets to decide what qualifies as offensive? Should a speaker that supports the right of free abortion on demand for all women be banned from speaking at a campus? There are surely plenty of people who still regard abortion as murder and hence would be offended by such a speaker and their opinions.

Why ban just the Socialist Workers Party from having meetings on a campus? Yes that organisation was involved in an appalling abuse of power over rape allegations, but then the Catholic Church has carried out much more systematic and disgraceful cover-ups of historical cases of child abuse. Why not ban Catholic societies from holding meetings on campus?

And frankly, if we’re going to be in the business of guessing what the hugely diverse population of Muslim students are going to be offended by, surely we should ban LGBT societies or drinking societies from campus as some particularly conservative Muslims (and for that matter Christians and Jews) would be “offended” by their presence. 

Now as odious as a Robin Thicke song or a Rupert Murdoch publications may be, how do those who favour censorships feel that bans on them will genuinely change anyone’s behaviour? The goal of principled socialists and supporters of freedom should be fighting objectionable views by debating them and showing them to be what they are, not by bureaucratic attempts to stop people hearing about these views.

There is an oft-used get out clause to downplay the censorious intent of disbanding SWP campus groups and stopping them from meeting and speaking on campuses. This says, “we are not banning anything, we are simply not giving a platform to a group. They are free to go away and have their meetings elsewhere, just not here.”

If you were to disallow a group to organise meetings, refuse to allow their speakers and make it altogether hugely difficult for them to meet, you would indeed be limiting their freedoms. But why acknowledge this is true in wider society but not inside the grounds of a university campus? The fact is, all views, including (in fact especially) minority ones, and including views seen as repugnant, should be allowed.

An Islamist preacher who espouses support for Hamas or Hezbollah and believes all the world’s problems are the fault of the sinful and decadent West should be as free to declare those views on a university campus as an avowed secularist who thinks religion is the cause of the world’s problems and blasphemes by drawing cartoons of religious figures.

The anti-free speech attitude which is developing is doing so in a dangerous context, at a time when the neoliberal university authorities and the state want to clamp down on civil liberties including free speech. We do not want to make their job easier.

Recent examples of such clamping down include the cancellation last year of a conference at Birkbeck, University of London, organised by the Islamic Human Rights Commission (an essentially pro-Iranian organisation) after the university was pressurised by threats from far-right groups that it would picket the event. Surely if one was to argue on safety grounds, then what the university did, bowing down to pressure from right-wing thugs, was sensible?

Universities are both afraid of big confrontations (for fear of the consequences if the students become too rowdy) and are actively opposed to them. They know that one consequence of protest may be a politically active and engaged student population that will challenge the increasing power of university management.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Berkeley free speech movement when students in California demanded the right to have political meetings on their campus, against management’s wishes to stop political discussion. From way back to the days of the French Revolution the left has traditionally opposed censorship and limits to freedom of speech both because it championed liberty as a principle and because censorship was usually used to stop radical ideas from gaining ground.

The most dangerous example of the state trying to quell free speech comes from Teresa May’s recent Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill which will allow the Home Office to effectively order a university to ban a speaker from events on their campus if they’re judged to be an “extremist”. The term “extremist” is an absurdly vague one. Those of us who are socialists, who believe in the overthrowal of capitalism and an end to the bourgeois state could easily be included in such a definition.

State repression of free speech is much more clearly opposed by students, as it is often clear that the state is not really interested in the safety of anything other than itself. But student activists should be consistent. We should stand up for freedom of speech!

Curtailments to freedom of speech should be regarded as rare events. The general attitude should be to allow all views to be heard as much as possible. The only limits to free speech on campus, as in society, should be where there are organised fascists and where people incite violence against people.

The tactic of no-platforming fascist groups was designed at a time when groups like the National Front would routinely pose a physical threat to oppressed minorities, to the left and to the labour movement. It was developed to stop the growth of the movement due to the physical danger that it posed and it even involved potential physical confrontation to stop fascists marching.

The tactic is now used much more widely to people with objectionable views and even to members of UKIP. That shows just how little the policy is understood in the British student movement.

The idea behind denying a platform to those whose views are “bad” leads to confusion and inconsistencies and doesn’t even succeed at stopping those views from gaining traction.

When Jean-Luc Melenchon of the Front de Gauche debated Marine Le Pen of the Front National during the French Presidential elections in 2012, was he wrong to have done that? Should he instead have insisted on her being no-platformed? Maybe.

It could be also be argued that there are times (when no-platforming has effectively failed and the far-right are much more powerful at a time when the left is much less so) when one could envisage debating with the far-right being the best way of halting and defeating them. The point is this is a tactic that must be considered by the left rather than a general approach of refusing to ideologically combat the views of the far right.

Perhaps the most unfortunate thing about the current state of affairs is that the cause of free expression seems to have little support from the British left. The left must regain the spirit of free debate and discussion (and reclaim it from the limited version of liberals). We need free speech to organise and fight for socialist ideas which will create a better world.­­