The row over whether David Irving and Nick Griffin should speak at the Oxford Union is not an argument about freedom of speech, writes Padraig Reidy
“Hello. I’m calling from Index on Censorship, and I’d like to come along to your Free Speech Forum next Monday. Can I put my name down?”
“Hmm. You’ll have to wait til Monday.”
“They’re having a poll on Friday.”
“On whether it should go ahead?”
“I’ll keep an eye out for the result then.”
I’d imagine the Oxford Union has had a lot of calls like this in the last few days. The press loves a freak show, and Union president Luke Tryl has, to be fair, brought us a classic: why not get some nasty people, with pretty controversial views, to come and speak, under the banner of free speech. Few things get us going more than the far right, free speech, and posh kids. The posh kids bit may seem insignificant, but it actually counts here: consider the amount of newspaper coverage given to the Clareification publication of a Muhammad cartoon, and the amount given to Cardiff University’s gair rhydd‘s publication of the same cartoon: the nation’s press enjoys stories about the Oxbridge elite from which so many of its writers have come. Narcissism? Nepotism? I couldn’t possibly comment.
So why the fuss this time? Well, the Union is to hold a “Free Speech Forum” featuring Nick Griffin, the man who brought us the literary classic Who Are The Mindbenders?, in which he explains how “the Jews” (always with the definite article) brainwash the population through the media, and David Irving, a man who has been declared a Holocaust denier by a UK judge, and imprisoned for being a Holocaust denier in Austria.
Yesterday on Comment is Free, Inayat Bunglawala expressed the hope that Irving and Griffin would be defeated in debate by Oxford’s students. We can hope this, but we should bear in mind that Irving and Griffin are clever people: Griffin is a Cambridge graduate who has managed to make his ragbag of cons and crackpots in to something resembling a legitimate political party, while Irving is, as Christopher Hitchens once pointed out, not just a fascist historian. He is also a great historian of fascism. That is to say, he knows his history, even if he does choose to assemble it all in to an utterly ahistorical narrative. There is a certain undergraduate arrogance in believing it will be easy to “tear to shreds” their arguments (though one imagines the very capable Evan Harris MP will do well).
Naturally, Oxford Jewish, anti-racist and anti-fascist groups are unhappy about this: last night, they held a rally at Oxford Town Hall, to voice their opposition. According to one report of the event, Stephen Altmann-Richer, of the Oxford University Jewish Society, “told the BBC News website that while freedom of speech was important ‘it is overshadowed in this instance.'”
Sounds sensible? Possibly. But it’s not, is it? Unfortunately for Stephen, this statement ultimately legitimises the argument of both the Oxford Union president and the fascists—and let’s be very clear, that is exactly what Irving and Griffin are – he has invited to speak, namely that “it was important to give people of all views a platform”. By saying that someone’s right to free speech is dependent on what they wish to say, Richter buys into the idea that it is Irving and Griffin’s right to speak at Oxford Union in the first place, and Luke Tryl’s duty to uphold that right by inviting them. James Ball also took up this stance, saying implying that to stop Irving and Griffin from speaking would deny them “one of the most basic and fundamental human rights”.
It would not. David Irving’s human rights are not infringed in the slightest if he is not allowed to speak at Oxford Union. In this country at least, Irving is free to sell his books, write on his website, and speak in any hall or pub function room that will take the booking. Griffin is free to organise his political party, write insane conspiracist pamphlets, put out music cds bastardising the work of anti-fascist Woodie Guthrie, and refer to Islam as a “wicked, vicious faith”.
They do not, however, have a “right” to speak at the Oxford Union, any more than I have a right to headline Wembley Arena for three nights running. Tryl, for his Free Speech Forum, has chosen to invite far-right demagogues to speak, rather than, say, someone who actively campaigns for free speech (no, not me). They have chosen to accept the invitation, and those who oppose them have chosen to protest. As Micah Smith astutely points out, Voltaire never said “I detest what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to be invited to the Oxford Union to say it.” (Voltaire also never said “I detest what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it”, but that’s just me being pedantic. The point stands.)
This is an interesting argument, certainly. But it is not an argument about the right to freedom of speech.