On the 15th October, the York Union invited the radical feminist and campaigner Julie Bindel to speak at a panel debate about the legalisation of prostitution. Inevitably, some sections of the student body called for Bindel to be refused a platform, mostly due to Bindel’s history of transphobic comments. The call to no-platform was ultimately short-lived and unsuccessful. It was however more successful at Manchester University, where the Students’ Union refused her a right to speak several weeks ago. The motion that Manchester’s SU prevented Bindel from speaking on? ‘Does modern Feminism have a problem with freedom of speech?’ The irony of banning someone from speaking on free speech is surely not lost on anyone.
Those who propose no-platform motions do so because they wish to protect students from harmful views. They argue that universities should be ‘safe spaces’, where students don’t hear offensive opinions. Students’ feelings should be protected, their delicate ears sheltered from anything that might offend them.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Universities should be places where one can say the unsayable; a place to air views that are outrageous, dangerous, and even offensive. Does this mean that someone like Bindel, who called trans* people “gender benders”, should be allowed to speak on university campuses? Of course it does. This is for two reasons: firstly to allow challenges to the holder of the offensive view, and secondly to allow development of one’s own views in opposition to the speaker. A no-platform policy removes this opportunity to critique and criticise outrageous views – it confuses the removal of the chance to speak with winning the debate. Rather than not engaging with hateful speakers, we should do the exact opposite. We should vigorously engage with them, challenging them, scrutinising them and even mocking them to reveal the contradictions in their positions.
Moreover, removing the right of a speaker to speak impacts the would-be audience, too. No-platforming cheats the listener of the chance to form their own opinion in contrast to that of the speaker. It makes them prisoner of the views they already hold, meaning they potentially think what they think purely because they haven’t had the chance to hear otherwise.
Even worse, no-platforming is patronising and paternalistic. It should offend you infinitely more than rabble rousing speakers on campus that other students take it upon themselves to monitor acceptable speech. We don’t need any group to decide on our behalves who we can and can’t listen to. And what a strange group the no-platformers in our universities are – social liberals who can’t tolerate any deviation from the socially liberal mainstream, and whom will happily employ illiberal measures in policing speech. What the no-platformers fail to understand is that there is no right not to be offended. Are you offended by certain speakers? That isn’t a reason to deny them their right to speak. Does their presence on campus hurt your feelings even? Then by all means, demonstrate to show your disapproval – but don’t remove their platform. To prioritise hurt feelings beyond the right to free speech is ludicrous.
Of course freedom of speech doesn’t mean one has a duty to host offensive speakers. But it does mean that once a platform has been extended to a speaker, a Students’ Union shouldn’t take it away. Freedom of speech on campus means defending the right of student groups to give a platform to the most controversial people. It means resisting the on-going use of safe space policies as a cudgel against ‘unacceptable’ speakers. It means criticising those that would deny debate rather than partake in it. Ultimately speakers on university campuses should be able to say that which is offensive, vile and outrageous, without fear of a Students’ Union removing their right to speak.