In Defence of Liberty

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No Platform, No Sense

The National Union of Students (NUS) has voted to widen its ‘No Platform’ policy to “rape deniers”, passing its motion by 24 votes to 6. This change means that the NUS, and its representatives, will not share a debating platform with people such as Respect MP George Galloway, Andrews Brons MEP, a member of the British National Party (BNP), and United Kingdom Independence Party’s Roger Helmer MEP. The motion had originally included former Secretary of State Tony Benn, before Mr Benn clarified himself to the NUS.

A spokesperson for the NUS told the Huffington Post UK: “NUS believes that there is a culture of undermining rape victims and rejects attempts to glorify, joke about or dismiss rape. The motion passed yesterday confirms that NUS shall not offer a platform to speakers who are rape deniers or apologists, or support events where such individuals speak.”

Instituted in the 1990s, the No Platform policy was originally created to prevent BNP candidates from standing in NUS elections. The policy asserted that the NUS would not share platforms with speakers it considered to be racist or fascist. Along with the BNP, other organisations subject to this rule are Combat 18, National Front, Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK. Representatives of other British political parties have also asserted that they would not share a platform with the BNP.

I do not believe that this debate should be about whether the NUS’s No Platform policy should remain only applied to racists and fascists, but whether the NUS should continue to have such a policy. The NUS should not be the arbitrator of speech on university campuses, deciding from its offices what students may or may not be exposed to on their campuses all across the country.

Though it is technically limited to representatives of the NUS, the way that the No Platform rule has been applied is to the campuses of universities with NUS-affiliated students’ unions. This has been the case even when the Students’ Union does not share the No Platform rule; the NUS usually responds to BNP speakers on campuses by demanding that the debate or talk is cancelled, whilst also promising raucous demonstrations from the United Against Fascism group, as happened to the University of Bath in 2007 and the University of Durham in 2010.

It should be first noted that the validity or invalidity of a No Platform policy is not an issue of freedom of speech. We broadly have freedom of association in this country, meaning that the NUS are free to debate with the BNP, as well as blankly refusing to debate them. The repudiation of sharing a platform with an individual or organisation is not equivalent to empowering the government to limit what they say.

The problem of the No Platform policy is once you create a list of disapproved speakers, you must necessarily create a list of approved guests. The policy must inescapably expand, as it is assumed that by not refusing a platform with someone, you are somehow legitimising or approving of what they say.

Aaron Kiely, the NUS’s Black Students Officer, said that the policy must remain unchanged as fascists “uniquely threaten democracy for all and stand for the annihilation of entire groups of people.” This assertion is untrue, the Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP) believes in overthrowing capitalism through violent revolution. The difference between the BNP and the SWP is that one is being refused a platform with the NUS, whilst the other has a key member on the NUS’s National Executive Council.

However, we should finally accept that the No Platform policy against the BNP has completely failed. The British National Party gained two European parliamentarians in 2009, after over a decade of being refused discussions and exchanges from the NUS, other political parties and prominent organisations. Nick Griffin, BNP leader and North West England MEP, had an appearance on Question Time, which followed after his success in the 2009 European elections. His party gained legitimacy from the 943,598 votes it received in that election, which was 6.2% of the vote, and its subsequent representation in the European Union’s Parliament: it did not gain or lose legitimacy from other parties refusing to argue with them.

It is up to this university, and not the NUS, to decide who we have on our campus. We should be free to set the rules and standards of debates and talks that occur in our lecture theatres. Our Students’ Union should also propagate this right to all the other universities in the UK, and allow other students’ unions to make the decision over speakers and guests to their campuses for themselves.

Related Viewing:

George Galloway banned by the NUS for Julian Assange ‘Rape’ comments by Dina Rickman (Huffington Post UK)

Galloway, rape and the ‘No Platform’ policy by Rupert Sutton (The Commentator)

Students can handle Gorgeous George by Tom Bailey (spiked)

Redefining NUS’ No Platform policy would weaken the fight against fascism & how it is possible to support women’s rights and Wikileaks by Aaron Kiely (NUS Connect)

University bars BNP leader from campus after protest fears by Matthew Taylor (The Guardian)

Student union apologises over BNP claim by Mark Tallentire (The Northern Echo)

Debate rages over ‘No Platform’ policy for Nick Griffin Question Time by Political Scrapbook


3 comments on “No Platform, No Sense

  1. phaseboundary
    May 7, 2014

    Nice analysis. The existence of No Platform policies is not formally a free speech issue, but raises many of the same discussion points. It’s worth pointing out that the longer-term outcome of the bar on Nick Griffin at the University of Bath was a referendum in which Bath’s students rejected a No Platform policy.

    • Anthony Masters
      May 7, 2014

      Thanks! Yes, the University of Bath SU did reject a No Platform policy, which was a proud moment.

  2. Pingback: On Free Speech and Platforms | In Defence of Liberty

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This entry was posted on October 2, 2012 by in Student Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , , .
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