Free speech rows at UK universities

Two of Britain’s leading universities have again found themselves embroiled in free speech debates. The Oxford Union courted controversy last Friday when it allowed banned preacher Dr Zakir Naik to address the society via video-link. LSE’s German Society has provoked similar outcry by inviting far right banker Thilo Sarrazin and author Henryk Broder to speak on Monday. Fortunately, free speech has triumphed in each case.

A letter signed by over a hundred UK-based German academics and students objected to the LSE’s choice of panellists. One of their primary concerns is the speakers’ argument that “there exists a pathological unwillingness among minorities in Germany (in particular Muslims) to integrate into society”.

But there is a case for Sarrazin and Broder’s participation. If their opinions are expressed, there will be an opportunity for the other side to provide evidence to the contrary, and so to “correct” this impression. Suppressing this argument could suggest that it is an unpalatable truth to which there is no adequate rebuttal.

The controversy is reminicsent of the Griffin and Irving debate in 2007.  The Oxford Union invited BNP chairman Nick Griffin and holocaust denier David Irving to speak. The Union building was overwhelmed by protestors — despite concerns that giving these figures a platform would “give legitimacy and credibility to their views”.

Ignoring these views is not an option. As abhorrent as they may be to many, they are more threatening when they are unknown. Open debate is the only effective way to illuminate the issues. Without such clarification we are poorly placed to combat them.

These are matters of public interest and they should not be concealed, regardless of the sensibilities they may offend. As the LSE Free Speech Group remarked, “the likelihood that offence would be caused was not in itself a reason to prevent the event from going ahead.”

Former UK Prime Minister Harold Macmillan described the Oxford Union as “the last bastion of free speech in the Western world”. The Society was “founded on an ideal of the Freedom of Speech”. It would be insupportable for the Union to compromise this principle, even in the face of such vigorous protest.

Unfortunately, that is exactly what happened in the Chris Langham affair. British comedian Chris Langham had been scheduled to address the Union on his arrest for downloading child pornography. Fearing a reaction on the scale of the Griffin and Irving protests, the Oxford Union cancelled the event.