Saturday, February 17, 2007

No platform for those who limit free speech

The University of Manchester Students' Union is not alone in having a "no platform" policy which allows the union to stop people advocating discrimination or racial hatred. The relevant part of the union's constitution is article 1.3.f, which reads:

To oppose discrimination against persons on any grounds including age, disability, political opinion, race, religion, sex or sexuality. This clause shall not compel the Union to provide a platform for advocating such discrimination and those the Union believes will incite racial hatred.
It is obvious that this clause limits the ability of people to say what they like on union property. I have been thinking about this aspect of student politics recently, especially since our recent Question Time event where I asked the question "should freedom of speech have its limits, especially when it comes to criticism of religion?" Two people on the panel answered this question, Lembit Öpik (Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomeryshire), and Rob Owen (General Secretary of our students' union, who has his own blog). I thought Lembit gave a robust defence of freedom of speech, arguing from the harm principle that actually advocating harm of another person is unacceptable, but there should be few if any restrictions other than that. Rob Owen instead defended the no platform policy, arguing that speakers that are deemed racist or fascist can legitimately be banned.

There are two things to consider when discussing the concept of a no platform policy. Firstly, the issue of whether a no platform policy is worth having. The second, and more fundamental issue, assuming a no platform policy is worth having, is who should decide who should be banned. I wish to tackle the second issue first and show how this means that a no platform policy is morally unacceptable.

I think it is fairly uncontroversial to state that everyone will have a different opinion of what is racist or fascist speech. With that in mind, the obvious solution would seem to be an elected committee which would judge what organisations or people should be banned. But while this seems obvious it suffers from a significant problem. Any instance where democracy is used to determine what is permitted or banned will reflect the wishes of the electorate. If the electorate decides, for example, that the Conservative party are racist (something which Rob Owen has argued in the past), then the Conservative party would be banned. However, the electorate might also decide that the BNP were nationalist, not racist (an argument which Nick Griffin frequently advocates to the media).

However, whether or not people view a message as racist does not actually mean a message is or is not racist. In other words, a racist message is inherently racist, it is not racist because people believe it is racist. To argue otherwise would be similar to arguing that slavery was at one time acceptable because the people at that time believed it acceptable. Morality does not depend on how many people accept an action as moral or immoral; morality is not democratic. This is an important point.

But the no platform policy asserts that we must enforce morality democratically, by voting for what organisations should be banned. This is a massive contradiction which can only lead to one conclusion - that a no platform policy draws an arbitrary line, and it is one which is not acceptable in a liberal society. It is not possible to base arguments for the no platform policy in liberal philosophy; the arguments are purely pragmatic - and pragmatic arguments are not nearly enough to justify limiting fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of speech.


el tom said...

a no platform policy draws an arbitrary line


Furthermore, there are excellent liberal arguments on this on the basis of a Lockean conception of private property. My house, my rules.

Anonymous said...

Good post. Highlights issues which need to be seen and understood by a lot of people in this union.

Anonymous said...

I think that your arguement is flawed in that you state that morality is a fixed concept against which all actions can be judged. However look at the current political landscape both locally and globally, and you will see that the moral values of different nations around the globes differ greatly.
What is considered to be moral is directly linked to the poulation of that area, and at that time. This is why it is futile to judge the morality of the slave trade by todays standards.
Modern democratic politics should have the courage to challenge these extremist and racist parties, and ridicule their policies for all to see.