5 December 1996
Freedom of Speech on Campus
In light of the great interest in the debate during the 23 Oct General Meeting
at the University of Manchester calling for the de-recognition of the Jewish
Society - Living Marxism decided to organise a debate on 'Freedom of Speech
on Campus'. Nick Frayn, from the Living Marxism Society, reports how the
arguments around 'Freedom of Speech on Campus' were handled by the speakers
and received by the audience.
Jennie Bristow, from Living Marxism, started by asking the questions 'Why
is free speech important?' and 'Why are arguments against it wrong?' Using
herself as an example, she argued that people who have strong opinions should
be able to argue them wherever they want. There's no point going about your
business thinking to yourself that you're very opinionated if those opinions
are never raised. Strong ideas should be debated and allowed to influence
as wide an audience as possible, and their authors should expect to have
to stand by them and justify them.
Jennie then asked what calling for bans said about people, claiming that
while lots of ideas disgusted her, it was her prerogative to argue against
them. Bans deny her this option and encourage people to sweep strong opinions
under the carpet. This is an abdication of responsibility. If people want
to shoot their mouths off about something they should be prepared to argue
their corner. She illustrated this point by looking at the current debate
about racism, claiming that today people who don't support bans on racist
groups or language are seen as apathetic.
If you really want to challenge racism, Jennie stated, then it must be tackled
head on, you can't just try to shut racists up. To sum up she stated that
being for freedom of speech was to take responsibility for arguing your
own ideas and against ideas you don't agree with, while calling for bans
revealed a lack of confidence in your ability to do this.
Noweed Ahmad, from the Islamic Society, started his speech by asking 'Where
can you possibly put limits to freedom of speech without destroying its
value?' He asked whether it is total or whether it has exceptions such as
Islamic fundamentalists or white supremacists. He claimed that, to support
"freedom of speech, except..." was a contradiction in terms.
Noweed called on his own experience in Manchester University on the Union
Council and at NUS conference to illustrate his speech. At the NUS conference
certain issues were up for discussion such as free education. But when the
Muslim group Hizb-ut Tahrir came to the conference, the Union of Jewish
Students (UJS) and NUS complained furiously and got the police to thrown
Noweed claimed that the labeling of certain groups as extremist or calling
them threatening or intimidating was a common tactic of institutions such
as the Students' Union. It was often the first step towards disenfranchising
them. The UJS at Manchester University had recently offered the hand of
friendship to 'moderate' Islamic societies which did not include the society
that Noweed represented!
Noweed stated that freedom of speech meant tolerance of intolerance in order
that rational debate could take place. He said that he was not afraid of
debate but silence worried him.
Colenzo Jarrett-Thorpe, who was defending the National Union of Students'
policy on freedom of speech began by asking 'What is freedom of speech?'
He said that the Union wanted freedom of speech to serve everyone and that
it didn't want to deny anyone the right to free speech. 'However', he asked,
'what is the best climate for freedom of speech to thrive in? Could freedom
of speech survive where hatred, fear and intimidation were the norm?'
In order for everyone to have freedom of speech, Colenzo argued, they must
be protected from this kind of abuse. 'People must be forced to be tolerant',
and in an interesting reversal of Noweed's argument, 'We must be intolerant
Colenzo read out part of Clause 1.4 of the Union's rule book, a statement
allowing the banning of groups from the university campus in order to allow
an atmosphere of debate to exist. It didn't allow prejudice on the basis
of race, sex, religious belief or sexual orientation. He illustrated his
point by referring to an incident when the British National Party had intimidated
people into putting leaflets in the pigeon holes of various members of the
executive and claimed that this form of intimidation actually denied free
speech in practice. He finished by stating that full freedom of speech would
only ever exist for a few people if there were no proper controls. Hatred
must be squeezed out of society - 'We must be exclusive to be inclusive'.
The ensuing discussion touched on a broad range of issues with almost all
contributions coming from people in favor of freedom of speech.
Amongst the points that were made, several questioned who it is that sets
the limits on freedom of speech. Obviously what is acceptable to an institution
such as the Students' Union is always changing, which makes bans both arbitrary
and potentially inexhaustible. On this theme one contributor stated that
it seemed as if the Union would only allow freedom of speech if what was
being said was so empty and vacuous that it offend nobody.
In another contribution, the Union's position on the issue was characterized
as that of a racist who claims 'I'm not a racist, but ...'. All the niceties
before the 'but' are meaningless, as the truth comes out in the qualifications
that follow it. Similarly, the restrictions put on freedom of speech by
Colenzo and the Union made it hollow in practice.
Some people raised the idea that bans were very patronizing to students.
Did students really need such protection? Several of the audience clapped
when one contributor said they were surprised that the Union executive were
intimidated by leaflets in their pigeon holes and stated that freedom of
speech was absolutely essential to defeat racist ideas.
Another important point that arose in several contributions was the idea
that discussions which people feel very passionately about, such as debates
about the future of Israel and Palestine are often based on real power relations
in society. Because it is real power relations that give rise to the passions
people have, then the only way that any kind of solution to these problems
could be found would be by having an open, rational discussion about them.
One contributor asked Jennie if, as a journalist, she worried that controversial
or left wing journalists had to curtail their arguments in order to find
a voice in an establishment media. Surely the power of media barons was
infringing on her right to freedom of speech?
Before the speakers were invited to come back, a quick poll was taken. Of
the three categories: 'for total freedom of speech', 'for free speech,
but...' and 'not for freedom of speech at all', the vote was overwhelmingly
in favour of 'total freedom of speech'. Only four people voted for freedom
of speech with exceptions, while nobody voted against freedom of speech
In his summation, Colenzo stated that we were fortunate to live in such
enlightened times where this debate could take place. However, even today
racist or sexist views were unacceptable to him. He saw a logical progression
from racist leaflets to faeces to fireworks - hence the need to ban some
groups and some ideas.
Noweed summed up by saying that, by definition, any limits on tolerance
equaled an intolerance. He stated very clearly that ideas such as racism
could only be defeated when open debate was allowed and encouraged. He claimed
that despite some recent harassment from Zionist students, he would still
be more than prepared to take on their ideas in debate if only he was given
the opportunity. He was not intimidated, only frustrated by the lack of
Jennie summed by saying that while certain groups do have more power and
resources, the only way to deal with that was by confronting it, not by
pretending inequality didn't exist or by taking away everybody's freedom
of speech. This attitude would inevitably be self-defeating for the people
from less powerful groups. She claimed to be worried that, through the degradation
of democratic rights, we might be left with a situation where only one set
of views was deemed acceptable, namely the Students Union's.
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