On 26 December the Universities Minister Jo Johnson announced plans that he claims will protect free speech on campuses, including potential fines on universities.
This is the conservative right’s latest broadside against student movement “no platform” policies.
We disagree with the ways “no platform” policies have been applied by some on the left. A legitimate self-defence tactic against organised, physically violent groups such as fascists has, in some cases, been overstretched in ways that are both futile and undemocratic.
But the government’s move is cynical nonsense. We argue to change no-platform policies democratically. This sort of interference in unions violates our freedom to organise: it’s for members, not the government, to decide on their unions’ political activities.
The hypocrisy runs still deeper. By far the biggest restrictions on free speech and political rights on campuses come from the state and managers. While the government rails against “ban-happy” leftists, it forces universities to impose mountains of bureaucracy that hassle and obstruct students who want to invite speakers and organise discussions. This is supposedly to ensure bigots don’t get a platform! The difference? The speakers targeted by the government are disproportionately Muslims. Whether the Tories think you deserve the right to air “controversial” views seems to depend mainly on your religion and the colour of your skin (a privately-educated accent also helps).
Beyond this, discriminatory Prevent policies create a chilling effect against Muslim students and radical activists; marketising reforms suffocate academic freedom; decades of anti-union laws infringe the democratic rights of student and trade unions; and authoritarian college and university managers crack down on simple things like political stalls and posters while enacting vicious intimidation and victimisation against student and trade union campaigners.
Bosses claiming to be protecting open debate have interfered extensively in student and staff-organised events: for instance, barring left-wingers from holding meetings unless they accept right-wing speakers and management-appointed chairs, for “balance”. And self-styled champions of liberty rail against left-wing campaigners who have the nerve to organise demonstrations against what they have to say: the right to speak is re-cast as the right not to face criticism or protest.
The left’s shortcomings on the issue must not blind anyone to the reality that the right-wing, the state and the ruling class are not serious or consistent champions of free speech. Every advance of political freedom in history has been secured through struggle: from below and from the left. Conservatives have latched onto no-platforming as a convenient excuse to attack leftists and deflect criticism and protest against their bigotries.
It’s up to us to fight off their cynical opportunism and build a real campaign to defend and extend political freedoms.