No-platforming has a bad rep. It’s become one of those swearwords in the media, used with little regard for its meaning or its purpose. The press would have you believe no-platforming is equivalent to a ban. On the contrary, no-platforming is a tactic originally designed to not allow fascists to organise, march or speak, as they are trying to smash democratic movements. It was not a call for a ban by the state or a public institution. Incidentally, student unions are neither and can invite or disinvite speakers at will.
The Left understands that any such ban would harm social movements. If you give the state, or even a university, a stick to bash people with – it might not always be your enemies, who feel the brunt. This was the original context for no-platforming. You could argue that it should not be applied to figures who are not fascists, especially other progressives. After all, the Left is already mired in its own circular firing squads. It’s not like the Left needs more sectarianism. Perhaps in a perfect world open dissensus would rein free.
At the same time, it remains true that the tactic is not opposed to free-speech necessarily. In most conceptions, freedom of speech (a value not enshrined by many states) allows people to express whatever view they hold so long as they aren’t advocating violence. This is the harm principle devised by JS Mill. Although the right to free-speech precludes censorship, it does not oblige people to listen to the man screeching from a soapbox at Speaker’s Corner. In other words, the mass-media wants us to believe that the Left is trying to block free-speech at every turn.
Take a guess why the press might want to give such an impression. This approach means latching onto every case where no-platforming is deployed. In the latest cup-based storm, an NUS LGBT Officer expressed her wish not to share a platform with veteran campaigner Peter Tatchell. This is due to Tatchell’s support for the right to speak in the cases of trans-exclusionary feminists, like Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel. Tatchell signed an open letter, which appeared in the Guardian arguing:
You do not have to agree with the views that are being silenced to find these tactics illiberal and undemocratic. Universities have a particular responsibility to resist this kind of bullying. We call on universities and other organisations to stand up to attempts at intimidation and affirm their support for the basic principles of democratic political exchange.
The NUS Officer in question made clear she regarded Tatchell’s position as de facto support for transphobia. These views were made in private emails, but Tatchell disclosed the details to the press (including her name). This effectively outed the student campaigner to the national media. Instead of any account of the student’s perspective, we just get the media echo-chamber of Tatchell’s standpoint. This in itself demonstrates the man’s voice is not being stifled.
No-platforming is just one tactic, it may not always be the best approach, but not turning up to an event is not a violation of free-speech. Tatchell can still be heard. In fact, that’s why we’re talking about this across social media. If the press were seriously for giving every viewpoint airtime, the BBC would be airing segments of David Irving lecturing on the Holocaust. The lack of access Irving has to the BBC is not the same as being thrown into an Austrian jail cell for his despicable opinions.
Should we all be expected to let neo-Nazis come into our homes and put up posters denying the Holocaust? I mean it’s against ‘free-speech’ if you throw the bastards out and tear down the poster. That’s the logic of the argument against no-platforming (not that I think Peter Tatchell is a fascist, or any kind of racist). This case seems to take freedom of expression as obligatory coverage. Actually there are no absolutes. Tatchell is free to publish and campaign, but we’re free to decide whether or not we will listen.
“I defend [the student’s] right not to share a platform with me. She has a right to say no, and I entirely respect that,” Peter Tatchell said in a recent interview. “I think it would have been much better for her to join me in a debate, so her point of view could be heard. And whether people agree with her or not, it’s good that she has a right and an opportunity to make her point of view known.” But he also made clear “I don’t think she should be hounded or harassed”. Again, we might want to think about why the press has latched onto this case.