In response to recent controversies around “no platforming” and censorship in the student movement, the Right2Debate campaign has sprung up. It opposes the growing practice of denying controversial, bigoted and “extremist” speakers platforms on campuses, and instead proposes that student unions adopt its model policy for dealing with these situations, focussed on ensuring that these speakers are countered in debate.
Right2Debate’s starting principle — that in general, it is better to counter reactionary and bigoted views through debate, rather than “no platform” tactics — is a good one (though I would add protest alongside debate). However, its approach and its proposed solution is deeply flawed, and underlines the need for a left-wing campaign on this issue.
First, Right2Debate’s proposed solution is intensely bureaucratic. In the name of free speech and its zeal to ensure debate, it ends up infringing other freedoms — the rights to organise and protest freely. It says that unions should give SU managers the power to interfere in student-run events and meetings featuring speakers who they deem offensive, dangerous and controversial. They would be able to force student groups to accept counter-speakers not of their choosing; to limit the time given to speakers; to replace their own event chairs with SU representatives; and to film and make public the entirety of the event. It also endorses the right of “campus officials” to ban protests they consider not to be “reasonable”: it is naïve to trust university and college managers as the guardians of free expression. Reactionary and bigoted speakers and groups should indeed be opposed, but this must be political not bureaucratic. The left should challenge such speakers to debate, but it is wrong to use SU hierarchies to forcibly impose it, top-down, and to interfere with students’ rights to run their own meetings.
Beyond challenging speakers to debate, we should respond with protest, our own counter-meetings, and literature (leaflets, social media, student press articles and so on, making our arguments).
Incidentally, there should be little doubt that Right2Debate’s policy could be used against left as well as right-wing speakers, and used to disrupt the ability of any “controversial” political groups, including left and liberation campaigns, to organise their own internal events without interference. As we have seen, objections about offensiveness have been used by people across the political spectrum to block events they don’t like and reject open political discussion.
Second, Right2Debate is hazy on the question of no platform for fascists. On the one hand, it says it will not dispute the NUS’s core list of no-platformed organisations (the British National Party, the English Defence League, National Action, Al-Muhajiroun, Hizb-ut-Tahrir and Muslim Public Affairs Committee). On the other, it opposes the denial of a platform to anyone except those who will make illegally inciting speeches. They need to clarify this inconsistent position. The left should support no platform for fascist organisations. Not because they are too offensive to be heard (we don’t want to ban fascist books from libraries), but as part of a necessary defence against organised movements of physical violence. Fascist organisations don’t just spout objectionable ideas but have declared war on the very existence of the workers’ movement and oppressed and marginalised groups of people.
Third, Right2Debate is overly concerned with legality as a guiding principle. This is not surprising given Right2Debate’s origins in Quilliam, an organisation very cosy with the government. The lines the state lays down on freedom of speech are not necessarily right. When we do happen to agree with the state’s lines, we should follow them because they are correct, not because we think respect for the law is an inherent good.
A clear example of this is in Right2Debate’s endorsement of compliance with the government’s counter-terror Prevent policy, much of which is racist in its targeting of Muslims and itself closes down freedom of expression. This reflects Right2Debate’s exclusive focus on SUs as the source of threats to freedom of speech in education. A campaign on freedom of speech needs to be consistent, by recognising, linking and fighting all the threats – most of which come not from students but from the government and university and college managers. That’s why activists in Workers’ Liberty want to work with others on the left to set up a campaign for open discussion, free speech and the right to organise on campuses, understanding this cause as an essential part of fighting oppression and allowing a flowering of students’ and workers’ organisation and struggle.
• You can read our initial draft statement in Solidarity 401. Please get in touch with your comments and if you’d like to work with us.
• Finally, you can read more about left-wing arguments for free speech and open discussion, and for no-platforming fascists, in this statement, from various student activists including Workers’ Liberty supporters, backing an (unsuccessful) motion to this Spring’s NUS LGBT+ conference.