Views expressed not necessarily those of the Free Speech and Secular Society
Free speech is a very misleading term. It is neither absolutely free nor solely concerned with speech. If it were entirely without constraint, proponents would show solidarity with those who call for the beheading of blasphemers if anyone tried to silence them. They would reflexively champion the rights of plagiarists to enrich themselves through deceit. They would support the right to enter a funeral and scream obscenities at recently bereaved children. None of these examples come under the banner of free speech, and anyone remotely well versed on the subject knows it.
There are notable constraints that forbid the direct incitement of violence, plagiarism, harassment and slander. However mockery, offending sensibilities, ridicule, criticism of ideas and even professing hatred toward individuals all fall well within its rubric. The reason being is that all of these aspects have a practical and demonstrable value. Taken together they provide the most effective catalyst of human liberation from oppression and ignorance, as well as the ultimate safeguard of individual liberty from the overreach of powerful actors.
It is for this reason that free speech is primarily concerned with ensuring every individual maintains the right to hear controversial views rather than just profess them. It goes without saying that without the freedom to speak the freedom to hear would be redundant. Yet it is the second of these two freedoms whose social utility makes it essential from a consequentialist perspective. Without it, many of the great advancements in human civilisation would not have occurred, because the ideas that inspired them would never have reached a sufficiently wide audience. Feudalism, clerical dominance, superstition and enthrallment would remain the natural human condition had the right to hear controversial opinions not ultimately won the day.
Free speech, therefore, is a neat but inaccurate representation of a concept that is neither entirely without constraint nor primarily concerned with speaking. This disconnect between concept and language has lead to more misconceptions than possibly any other great idea in human history. Take for example this rather comical figure. Incensed at the arrival of hate speech on her campus, she decided to continuously disrupt an event that students had been waiting to see. When told that her hysterical screeching must stop or she would be ejected from the room she shouted “but this is my free speech.”
What this lady is doing is the equivalent of entering a newsagents, snatching a paper from you, then saying that she has as much of a right to read it as you do. Then every time you go to pick up another paper she does the same thing again. Clearly she is not infringing on the right of journalists to have their articles read, but equally clear is the fact that she is infringing on your right to read what you want. In short, the right of the audience to hear is just as, if not even more important than the right of the speaker to be heard.
It is for this reason that I have always found the arguments surrounding the No Platform Policy to be slightly perplexing. Those who defend it invariably focus on the fact that no external figure has a right to speak on campus, along with the right of a democratically elected NUS to protect marginalised students. Setting aside the instant pange of absurdity felt whenever anybody describes the NUS as democratic, my general dumbfoundedness centers upon the first point.
I don’t think that any serious person has ever argued that any individual has some kind of preordained absolute right to speak at a university. However, the students who wish to give them a platform certainly do have the right to offer them an invitation. They are every bit as entitled as anyone else to assemble freely, conjugate with like minded people, and form groups that reflect their politics.
Stopping this from happening is a direct infringement of free speech. Not that of the speaker, but of the students who wish to hear that speaker’s views. Sometimes this is acceptable, such as when a speaker is proposed who incites violence. Such an occasion would see the safety of students genuinely put at risk, and so infringing on free speech is perfectly acceptable. However the childish argument we find ourselves having today constantly pits those in favour of free expression against those whose notion of harm is nonsensically broad. Any speaker could fall foul of the wide interpretation of the arbitrary and self important NUS exec.
In order to represent the nonsense at hand I give you the example of Richard Brooks. Recently, on the popular Victoria Derbyshire programme he argued that no speaker has the right to a platform, and a democratically elected SU should retain the power to invite, disinvite and not invite whoever they want. He then made the comparative analogy that an outside speaker complaining about being banned from a university is the equivalent of someone complaining about not being invited to a private party.
The glaringly obvious weakness of this analogy is that university is not supposed to resemble an SU invite only soirée. It is a place where the heat of free enquiry and academic rigour should challenge orthodoxies, shape opinions and allow for the forming and reforming of ideas. When this maxim ceases to be fulfilled, the difference between a university and a department of propaganda becomes too thin for comfort.
This truism alone should be enough to highlight how warped this gentleman’s general outlook on university seems to be. However to expose how utterly fatuous his line of argument is one can continue with this analogy of the party invitation. For the sake of objectivity we must change the paraments a little and create the following far more accurate description:
You and a group of flatmates (university society), wish to invite a friend (prospective speaker) to a party at your place. Before being allowed entry into the building all guests must be cleared by your landlord (SU). Within your large apartment bloc (university) there lives a group people who hysterically dislike your friend and her views. So much so that they bitterly complain about her upcoming arrival and ask for her to be banned from entering the building. Your friend has never been violent towards the other tenants, nor incited others to be, and by any reasonable arbiter poses no physical threat to anyone. All she has done is share opinions that run contrary to the offended on issues with which they share an interest. Despite this, the landlord refuses to allow entry to your friend. The reason given is that her presence might incite hatred or make others feel emotionally unsafe.
Leaving aside for the moment the intellectually untenable nature of the reasons given for the refusal, should a landlord be allowed to do this to his tenants? You have a guest, who in no way poses a physical threat to anyone in the building, and who has been invited to a party by people who have as much right to throw one as anyone else. Yet rather than equally respect the rights of all, the landlord says that this peaceful visit will not be allowed.
Surely the only reasonable response to the offended party would be to say that if they don’t like one of the guests, don’t go to the party? Nobody is forcing anyone to interact with this person, and nobody is stopping anyone from peacefully protesting outside if they desire. But to ban someone based on the way their presence makes other people feel is an unacceptable act of repression toward the people who wish to invite her.
Like in the analogy of the party, for all intents and purposes the speaker has already been invited as soon as the request is sent to the relevant authority. True the invitation has not been officially given yet, but that is only important if we accept that the right of the speaker is the salient issue here. Mr Brooks is entirely mistaken if he thinks that to be so. It is the right of the audience that he infringes upon, and the cynic in me thinks he doesn’t care one bit.
This seems to be where we reach the crux of the matter. Mr Brooks is correct in asserting that a Students’ Union is perfectly entitled to refuse entry to whoever it wants. However, he is fundamentally misunderstood if he thinks doing so does not restrict the freedom of speech of the students he seemingly does not care to represent. Classical Liberals, Anti-theists, Libertarians and Free Speech advocates exist on campus too. Though he may only concern himself with the groups that are more likely to support him, it is this audience who he marginalises and discriminates against by infringing on their rights to hear an opinion he may not like.