In bid to address the issues surrounding people with extremist views giving talks at British campuses, Universities UK recently released new guidelines on external speakers. “Universities have to balance their obligation to secure free speech with their duties to ensure that the law is observed — which includes promoting good campus relations and maintaining the safety and security of staff, students and visitors,” says the body, which represents vice-chancellors.
This is not the first time they have spoken out about the topic. However, a set of guidelines from 2011 reads: “It is the law alone which can set restrictions on freedom of speech and expression and on academic freedom — it is for the law and not for institutions or individuals within institutions to set the boundaries on the legitimate exercise of those rights”. It appears they are calling for somewhat stricter regulation this time around. The current guidelines are also more in line with the view of the National Union of Students, which maintains that “(…) many students’ unions may wish to go further than the law on securing ‘freedom from harm’ when restricting some speaker activity.” The NUS’ own “No Platform” policy, banning certain speakers from their events, puts this theory into practice.
This is one of those topics that seems to come up at fairly regular intervals, and the outline of the debate is familiar by now. One side argues that speakers with outwardly hateful or discriminatory views don’t deserve a platform through which to legitimate them; while the other side argues that to deny them this is to deny them the right to freedom of expression, which also extends to those with whom we disagree. The following speakers have been responsible for at one point reigniting the debate, each in their own way.
1) Nick Griffin
Nick Griffin outside the Old Bailey court on the first day of the trial of the murder of Lee Rigby (Image: Velar Grant/Demotix)
The most famous case in recent years was the 2007 appearance of BNP leader Nick Griffin (and Holocaust-denying historian David Irving) at an Oxford Union debate on free speech. The invitation caused massive uproar, with protesters picketing the event. “It is not just an Oxford issue, this will have ramifications for other places where the BNP are active… this is going to give legitimacy and credibility to their views,” said Student Union President Martin McClusky at the time. “I find the views of the BNP and David Irving awful and abhorrent but my members agreed that the best way to beat extremism is through debate,” argued Oxford Union president Luke Tryl. This is not only time the Nick Griffin has caused controversy as a potential university speaker. Trinity College Dublin cancelled plans to include him in a debate immigration, saying “it could not guarantee the safety and wellbeing of staff and students”.
2) Mufti Ismail Menk
Mufti Ismail Menk giving a lecture (Image: soukISLAM/YouTube)
Islamic preacher Mufti Ismail Menk spoke at Liverpool University earlier this month. He has previously stated that gay people are “filthy” and “worse than animals”. The event was initially reported to be part of a longer tour stopping at Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, Leicester, Cardiff and Oxford universities. However, all except Liverpool, where he was hosted by the Islamic Society, revoked their invitation or said he had not been officially invited in the first place. Liverpool responded that it is “not the role of the university to censor people’s views”.
3) Mohamed El-Nabawy
A video captured the protest that erupted when Mohamed El-Nabawy was due to speak at SOAS (Image: YouTube)
A representative of Tamaroud, the grassroots movement which played a significant role in the ousting of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood-backed elected government, was chased away by angry protesters prior to a scheduled talk at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). The protesters, who were not students, chanted and brandished posters associated with the Muslim Brotherhood at the open lecture. SOAS security had to escort El-Nabawy off campus using an emergency exit . A spokeswoman for the Palestinian Society, which had organised the talk, said: “In the pursuit of freedom of speech and expression, some people may find some of the views expressed at our events objectionable.”
4) David Gale
David Gale on the BBC’s Sunday Politics Show (Image: UKIPDerby/YouTube)
In 2012 the Student Union at the University of Derby banned David Gale, UKIP’s candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner, from taking part in a Q&A session at the university. The Union has a no platform policy for “individual(s) who they believe to be a member of a group with racist, fascist or extremist views”, a category the Union believed was applicable to UKIP . UKIP leader Nigel Farage weighed in on the issue at the time, saying: “It is frightening that a Derby student body is so frightened of free speech and public opinion.”
5) George Galloway
George Galloway attends an anti-war rally in 2011 (Image: Paul Soso/Demotix)
In March, George Galloway was set to speak at an event organised by the University of Chester Debating Society. However, the invitation was revoked by the Student Union, acting in line with the NUS’ No Platform policy on Galloway. This move came after the Respect Party MP was involved in a string of controversial incidents, including refusing to debate with an Israeli student at an Oxford University panel discussion. Galloway’s camp have called the policy “idiotic, anti-democratic and politically-motivated”.
6) Julie Bindel
In September, the Debating Union at Manchester University (MDU) invited feminist writer and campaigner Julie Bindel to speak at their discussion on pornography. A number of people objected due to Bindel’s reported views about transexual people, which have led to the NUS implementing a No Platform policy for her. Some transexual students and their supporters “felt Julie Bindel’s transphobic statements and views made them both unwelcome at the event, and unsafe on campus, as it seemed that transphobia was being allowed and possibly encouraged,” said Loz Webb, the university’s Trans* representative. Despite this, MDU refused to replace Bindel, though she eventually chose to drop out after receiving death threats.
Sometimes, arguments move on — and when they do, those who were once at the forefront of intellectual and political thought are left high and dry.
So it may be with Julie Bindel, and many of her supporters, who were outraged on Friday as a bunch of uppity “trannies” and advocates of other causes (from sex workers to gay rights) turned out variously to picket, leaflet and heckle her appearance on Queer Question Time at the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.
A great deal of hot air has already been expended on this ruckus, so here are the edited highlights. Julie Bindel is controversial. To begin with she restricted herself to targets that fellow progressives agreed needed taking potshots and over the years she has been a staunch ally and campaigner on behalf of lesbians, gays, victims of domestic violence and trafficked women — amongst others.
That is radical stuff: it is also dangerous stuff in a world where cuts in public services are on the cards, tough choices need to be taken, and the next government is likely to be looking round for places where they can swing the axe with little fear of recrimination. Populist cuts, in this context, could spell the death knell — literally — for some transsexuals, as one of the key reasons that gender re-assignment is catered for by the NHS is the serious psychological trauma suffered by those forced to continue in a gender that is simply wrong for them.
Which brings us back to Queer Question Time. The venue is a place usually considered one of the safest “queer” venues in London: organisers of the demo against Julie Bindel claim that their intention was never to argue “no platform” — but rather to protest the insensitivity of inviting someone who denied their very existence into what had previously felt like their home.
The demo passed relatively peaceably: events inside rapidly descended into farce, as it seems that the event organisers had courted controversy — but not prepared themselves for its arrival.
Heckling — on behalf of many causes — rapidly turned vicious, and much interesting debate was drowned out and derailed.
The Guardian, which has in the past been accused of acting as house magazine for the Bindelite strand of feminist thought turned out Bea Campbell on Sunday to defend Ms Bindel against those who were being nasty to her — and to conflate the events at the Royal Tavern with a recent decision by NUS Women’s Conference not to share a platform with her in future. This, in turn, set the phone wires buzzing, and another piece landed on the screens of puzzled readers on Monday morning, as blogger CL Minou turned out to argue against giving Bindel air space.
Should Ms Bindel be denied a platform? If one reads her own views on the topic, she sees this as a vicious and inexplicable ad feminam campaign against her. In exchanges — on Facebook — with one of the demo organisers, she appears genuinely outraged that she, a “lesbian feminist jewish woman” should be accused of being partly responsible for the deaths of transwomen.
On the other hand, arguing against the right of a group to be recognised — to exist —goes beyond commentary that can be put down to a “just a difference of opinion”. Bindel’s Facebook comment typifies a certain strand of gender and sexual politics and it may sound the death knell for her position at the forefront of that movement.
It is known as the “hierarchy of oppressions” and is the bad joke that sits at the heart of New Labour thinking on equality: the idea that certain groups and minorities are oppressed and others are oppressors — as opposed to a broader Human Rights approach that simply condemns oppression and discrimination wherever it rears its head. As one academic put it: “Equality is the framework that makes discrimination possible”.
Feminist academic Alexandra Dymock — reacting angrily to the Bindel-centred fuss — wrote this weekend: “Ask your average feminist working in academia whose research has been systematically ignored or refused funding by Labour in favour of the socially conservative spin Bindel and co spit out that happens to back their policy plans up and they’re enraged and disillusioned. It also allows the general populace to dismiss any potentially progressive thinking about gender equality upon the logic that feminism means ‘female advancement’.”
For now, the argument is about whether an old guard feminist should still be allowed the space to speak – though through the traditional left-wing media, she still has a pretty powerful platform. The real story may be that this confrontation with the trans community may be the beginning of the end.
Ideas that were once radical are becoming more mainstream: and a new, queer, non-heteronormative debate is breaking out around sexuality and gender. Its out of the box — and won’t go back inside, no matter how hard its opponents push.