Three years ago, my university took me to court. I was the first named defendant in an injunction case cracking down on a peaceful protest. We were opposing course closures, I was Students’ Union President, and this was a clear case of union busting. I suspect the university spent more on lawyers in one day than the tuition fee debt I am still repaying. A shameful waste of money, a disgraceful attack on free speech. Where were the ‘free speech’ brigade that day? Where were they when Birmingham, Warwick and Sussex all introduced similar injunctions?
The Tories are obsessed with ‘free speech’ in our universities, and last week declared they could introduce powers to fine, suspend or deregister institutions deemed to undermine it. Their concern, of course, is not the interests of students; nor does it represent reality.
It’s not what they think
The ‘free speech’ debate is one often termed in a way that denotes certain ‘lines’ being crossed. You’ve heard it before: “ban Nick Griffin? It’s a slippery slope, where will we draw the line?” So, it is important to first factor in the many constraints within which we are already operating. ‘Free speech’ is an immaterial right denied to us under capitalism. So long as the ruling class owns the means to exercise those rights, with a state willing to defend its interests by force, the rights of the oppressed will always count for less. These incomplete freedoms do not exist in isolation from one another, and the freedom to speak, assemble and live free from prejudice have intersections and contradictions.
The Tories’ obsession with ‘free speech’ seems to stem from a nostalgic view of university. The pretentious debating chambers stuffed full of private school boys, hobnobbing with big names. They believe that socialists concerned with the rights of Black, Jewish, trans and other communities are limiting the freedom of their own offspring to lord it up with the likes of Marine Le Pen. They speak of fictional policies and ‘safe spaces’, supposedly shutting down debate. The truth is, there is a real assault on freedom of speech on campus, but it does not resemble the tale the Tories are telling.
Many of us involved in the 2010 student movement will remember being kettled in the cold for daring to voice our opposition to a policy that has in effect made critical thinking in universities tougher. This kind of policing has not been limited to the streets of Westminster: plenty of activists have since been kettled for hours on campuses. At Birmingham University, a 17-year-old student under my supervision was taken to hospital after coming into contact with police. Every student, upon leaving that kettle, had their photo and personal information taken by the police, despite none of us breaking the law in any way. Groups such as Defend the Right to Protest have for years fought for the right of students to dissent freely, and we are yet to hear of outrage from ministers.
The policy the Tories fundamentally oppose, and the only one which makes any real, practical impact on campus, is No Platform for Fascists. It is a tactic which was first raised in the student movement in 1973. It recognised that fascist organisations particularly sought to organise within education to drive Black students from campus, communities and ultimately society. Fascists are treated specifically because their aim is specific: to stifle democracy, deny justice and cultivate the street violence which terrorises the oppressed. Theirs are not rational arguments and cannot be met with ordinary debate, let alone legitimisation. Fascists are denied ‘free speech’ in order to protect the rights of the majority. When the National Union of Students first introduced the policy, it published a leaflet which summed up its relation to ‘free speech’:
“We reject the view that the restriction of fascist organisations in this way is to deny all freedom of expression; our aim is to make the ideal of freedom of assembly and expression meaningful in reality. To turn the problem of “free speech” from a practical into an abstract question is to jeopardise the position of the labour movement and its defence of democratic rights, and to allow fascists and racists to shelter under the democratic freedoms when their ultimate aim is to destroy such freedoms.”
For decades since, anti-fascists have employed the tactic of No Platform to deny airtime to far-right organisations such as the National Front, the British National Party and the English Defence League. Refusing these views the legitimacy they crave, before they are given the exposure to thrive, is about protection, not from “offence” as some claim, but from persecution.
I disagree with those who propose to take this policy further, extending it to non-fascists. There are many people with whom I politically disagree or who have made objectionable comments - UKIP, for instance. While I may not choose to work with or invite them to an event I may organise, I would not indefinitely deny them a platform. This distortion of the No Platform for Fascists tactic has somewhat created confusion, undermined its intended use and led to accusations that students will “ban anyone”.
Non-fascists with questionable opinions, so long as their ideological position does not jeopardise the rights of others to exist, should be engaged with critically. Nonetheless, students and education workers must have a right to organise collectively and democratically to determine the policies of their unions. After all, our freedoms will not be won until we seize controls of the institutions that determine them.
The Government wants us to think it’s the ‘snowflake’ brigade crusading against free speech, but the reality is that their own policies are much more effectively undermining the principle.
There are organisations that play a key role in convincing the Government to crack down on free speech, not least within the university space. Take the odious Henry Jackson Society for instance, and its front-group ‘Student Rights’ (neither run by students nor interested in their rights). Their hobbyhorse is removing so-called extremists from campus. Just this week I discovered I had made the cut for their ‘Extreme Speakers of 2016/17’ list. My crime? Encouraging academics to organise industrial ballots to reject the implementation of the Prevent Duty; this being, no less, a law aimed at stopping people becoming ‘radicalised’, a dangerously vague term. Its use has led to academics being arrested for researching contentious material. It has seen students disciplined for researching course material or campaigning for Palestine. The fact they were all Muslim had a key part to play in their treatment and this provides evidence of the racist implications of this particular policy. Free speech if you’re white, suspension (or even jail time) if you’re not.
Jo Johnson, universities minister, said this week that his new initiative will “ensure that those with different backgrounds or perspectives can flourish in a higher education environment.” His government’s counter-terrorism policy is totally at odds with that aim.
The market limits freedom
Extortionate tuition fees have led to a culture of students as consumers, and institutions competing against one another. No longer is the academy a space for free thought and debate, but for pre-packaged ideas, bought off the shelf. Students are working increasingly long hours in part-time jobs, with a dramatic rise of those reporting mental health problems. Academics themselves, increasingly casualised and strained on zero hours contracts, have barely the time to speak freely. The pressure to do well, when debt is so high, makes students far more likely to play it safe and produce work their tutors agree with. If the Tories really want to defend free speech, and deliver their so-called “student revolution”, they would be much better focusing on scrapping fees and giving education workers a pay rise, as opposed to vilifying the lot of them.
The real defenders of free speech in our institutions - and in society - are in fact unions, protecting academics’ right to push the boundaries in research and dialogue, and defending students’ right to protest. Students deciding collectively how universities should operate does not make them an enemy within. If Tories really want to tackle the assault on free speech, they should look to their own attacks on unions, racist surveillance and obliging university management. It is the self-organisation of students, workers and anti-fascists that will continue to resist those who threaten our freedoms and organise for a truly “free” speech society, free from censorship and oppression.
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