25 November 2021
A case for caution.
By John Watson
“To ban or not to ban”, that is the question and a very difficult one it is too. It has always been recognised that there are some limits to freedom of speech; the law of libel, the Race Relations Act and the criminal penalties for incitement to criminal offences being obvious ones. The question is how far those limits should go and to what extent public institutions such as universities should go beyond the law by refusing a platform to those of whose views they disapprove.
Although that is the usual way of putting the issue, in a sense it looks at it the wrong way round. Someone can only be refused a platform if they have been invited on to it, so in practice there is little difference between banning somebody and deciding not to invite them in the first place, save that the latter is a snub usually calculated to aggrandise the position of the institution in question. Perhaps then we should focus on who should or should not be invited to speak and treat the question of withdrawing invitations as a part of that.
It cannot be right that universities, societies or other public institutions should have no choice over whom to invite to speak at their events. Indeed their choice will often follow from their nature or principles laid down by their founders. You would not expect a religious foundation to invite many atheist speakers or a conference given to foreign investors by the City of London to include communists on the panel. Nor should an overtly left wing institution be obliged to host speakers of whose views it strongly disapproves. No, generally speaking, institutions, whether public or not, should be able to choose who to invite and that must mean that they can withdraw those invitations if they think they have made a mistake.
And yet, save in the case of speakers who try to incite hatred or spread false news, attempts to suppress particular views strike a jarring chord and have seldom added to the reputation of the suppressors. No one thinks the better of the administrations of Queen Mary or King Edward VI because of the number of martyrs burned. The 1971 prosecution of the creators of Oz magazine under the Obscene Publications Act is not seen as one of the establishment’s finest hours. Book burning is not generally applauded by later generations. There are two reasons for all this. First, action against speakers or publications usually amounts to an attempt to assert popular views against those which are currently seen as heretical, leaving the action exposed to contempt as the public moves on. Second, most people prefer to see offensive views demolished by argument or withering on the vine as everyone loses interest in them. That is surely the right fate for the vapid outpourings of those who spout nonsense.
So where does that leave us with the current debate – the right for institutions to choose their speakers on one side, the general dislike of banning and suppression of views on the other. This is indeed a place where angels might fear to tread, so rather than rushing in with general statements about freedom of speech it might be better to look at who is affected by exclusion or non-invitation and consider whether they should have any sort of redress.
The first group comprises the speakers who, were they not banned or had they been invited when they should have been, would have had the chances to propagate their views. One of the possibilities recently canvassed by the government was that those de-platformed should be entitled to some sort of compensation. That has to be madness. If a speakers views are worth listening to they will find outlets elsewhere and giving any enforceable right to speak or appear on panels will merely encourage those whose views are valueless to make claims designed to increase their personal profiles. That is not a good use of the justice system.
There is, however, another group which needs to be considered. Nowadays students pay to go to university and, in return, the university should provide as broad and deep an education as it is able to. That does not mean that it must invite all possible speakers, however idiotic or bigoted they may be. It should, however, exercise its judgement in keeping a proper balance and certainly should not ignore or ban speakers because it is afraid of pressure groups calling for their exclusion. If a university proposes to take that course it should say so, so that students who want a full education can take note and go elsewhere. Otherwise they are simply being cheated and are not getting what they paid for.
The Government is now proposing to take action but it should be wary of becoming, or employing a “czar” who becomes, too deeply involved in what is a very subjective area. Perhaps they might think of asking universities and other academic institutions to publish their policies on selecting speakers, and indeed no platforming them, so that those who pay the fees can see what they’re getting. It would probably be unwise to go much further than that.