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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 them out.

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 of intolerance'.

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 per se.

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 argument.

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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