Friday 29-04-2016 - 09:00
On Monday, I was on television.
It was my first live television appearance since I became an NUS officer. I tend not to do them as I’m not as important as Pres or VP HE, so I get to do the fun bit of spending all of my time in students’ unions (#LoveSUs, innit).
It would also appear that I don’t have a face for television, as my Twitter timeline confirmed. I’ll stick to radio from now on.
I was on the Victoria Derbyshire programme with a number of other full time officers from NUS, as well as some excellent sabbatical officers from up and down the country debating one of the most ‘controversial’ issues of the student movement and education sector right now – freedom of speech. We were joined by a number of people who felt like they had been censored or were ‘standing up for freedom of speech’.
The reason I’ve used a couple of inverted commas there is simple – there isn’t a controversy, or a banning endemic on campuses. The mass censorship line being paraded around simply isn’t happening.
The vast majority of the 600 students’ unions in the UK have student groups and events and speakers and debates. There are thousands of debates every week. And yet the same instances being lauded as examples of people being ‘no platformed’ (I’ll explain that in a sec) – such as Peter Tatchell or Julie Bindel – weren’t no platformed. They just weren’t invited. That’s it. They didn’t get an RSVP to the party.
So what are these things?
No Platform – A very specific and narrow policy that NUS has had since the 1970s which is democratically decided by National Conference every year. It contains just six fascist and racist organisations, and is meant to enfranchise freedom of speech and keep students safe.
That is NUS’ policy, which is different to what SUs do. Lots don’t have no platform policies because they students decided not to. That’s fine, it’s up to them. Also – NUS and SU’s are different to unis and colleges. We are different legal entities, have different regulations and are run in different ways.
Safe Space – Essentially this is another policy that is democratically decided, which ensures that marginalised voices can debate free from intimidation. (This is where I got into most trouble, as I paraphrased Orwell when saying some people in society had more power than others – people seemed angry about this)*
Both of these policies are narrow, specific for certain circumstances and have to be democratically decided by students on their own campuses.
Now, I have spent my life as a student and student representative defending these policies. I believe they enfranchise freedom of speech for those from marginalised groups, they keep students safe and they’re just sensible things to have. People’s liberties only extend so far as to when they infringe upon others – in other words, you shouting “Freedom of Speech!” at the top of your lungs does not excuse your racism or homophobia (Why do censorship activists always shout? Why are they almost exclusively middle class white men? You tell me).
Ironically, I have never had a less civilised debate about anything than with people who proclaim their freedom of speech is under threat. Who do this whilst taking out a two-page spread in the New Statesman. Who say no-one is willing to debate them whilst I am literally debating with them on national television. Who say they have no platform whilst standing on big platforms.
So no, NUS is not trying to stop a debate happening near you. And most likely, neither is your students’ union. What’s happening is that a bunch of people who are used to getting the stage all to themselves are now having to share the limelight with others. And they don’t seem to like it very much.
*Orwell totally got that freedom of speech in a civilised society didn’t mean you got to whatever you wanted to whomever you wanted no matter the consequences, as he says in his introduction to Animal Farm: “Now, when one demands liberty of speech and of the press, one is not demanding absolute liberty. There always must be, or at any rate there always will be, some degree of censorship, so long as organised societies endure.”