Vote no to the No Platform Policy, yes to free speech

This policy would send out the message that the Union is only willing to represent students whose views accord with its supposedly neutral views

Cartoon by Brandon Seager

Cartoon by Brandon Seager

As you may or may not be aware, YUSU is holding a referendum on a ‘No Platform’ policy next week. If passed, the policy gives the staff of YUSU the power to choose who speaks at the University.

It states that if a student lodges a complaint about a speaker coming to York, the 5 full-time YUSU officers vote on whether a speaker will be allowed to speak. The new powers would award the Union the ability to deprive them of a platform.

This policy would compound extensive powers the Union already wields over speakers. YUSU can dictate the subject matter of some talks – including the outright banning of certain topics of discussion – an entitlement it used several times last year. The new power would be a much more disturbing movement away from the culture of free speech. If passed, it would not only undermine the very protection that societies seek under good union, but would deal a harmful blow to true academic debate.

There will always be people who disagree with a speaker’s views – it is the very nature of political debate. Without disagreement, debates do not further. Picture a debate in the House of Commons with only one party on both sides of the room – the air would be stale with agreement, and the antagonistic fizz that drives progress long bubbled away. True debate requires an argument of two sides, even if not necessarily in the same room at the same time.

Yet the proposal presumes that attendees of a talk would be brainwashed by bigoted propaganda, an assumption both patronizing and insulting to the swathes of students who may go to see speakers for various reasons. The vast majority of us see ourselves as independent agents who explore our own beliefs and ideas, and who are both willing and able to disagree. The institution of any university exists as a place of debate, and should not be mistaken for a political mouthpiece. It is in such privileged institutions that we come to understand our enemies, precisely so that we can undermine them.

I am not condoning racism or fascism. It is far too easy, however, to frame this policy as an attack purely on the BNP et al, without considering its long-run implications for other speakers whose ‘controversial’ views are, in fact, best explored in the speech itself. This is not a curtailing of free speech for the speaker so much as the society who invites them – this policy would send out the message that the Union is only willing to represent students whose views accord with its supposedly neutral views. At this point, you may argue that I am misrepresenting the function of this policy, available here. Among other traits, it proposes to deny platforms to those who “Reject the principle of popular sovereignty as the sole basis of legislation, and/or the right to free speech.” Muse on the irony of the final phrase for a few seconds before moving on.

Indeed, much of the time, we invite bigoted speakers for the very purpose of allowing them to lambast themselves. Just think back to Nick Griffin on Question Time in 2009, and question whether the idea that ‘platforms’ are necessarily positive for the speaker still stands. Or, what of speakers who hold questionable private beliefs, but are here to talk about dance, microbiology, tennis, or their latest novel – not their views on, say, their home country? The policy makes no mention of the reasons for inviting the speaker, or their topic, which may be wildly exaggerated and misrepresented by opponents.

Furthermore, the concept that the members of the Union are both politically neutral, and suitably studied in the kinds of issues associated with this form of censorship, is debatable. I mean no personal disrespect when I point out that the majority of us voted for the Sports Officer to look after our rugby tours, not to make value judgments on the merits of a speaker. With a voting majority of only 1 person in a 5-person vote, the final decision would be both arbitrary and unrepresentative of the 16,000 students the Union represents.

And while the current committee may well address the merits each speech honourably, YUSU has a vested interest in avoiding the kinds of people who bring ‘bad press’ and who are likely to get External Relations on their backs. Sadly, it is much easier for the Union just to vote against a speaker in order to avoid the hours of emailing and risk-assessment that they might entail. All too easily, subsequent committees might relax their standards of interrogation. In doing so, they would undermine the very protection that sovereign societies seek under YUSU.

Democracy is a fundamentally uncomfortable situation – while it gives us the right to vote for our own beliefs, it also affords others the right to vote for theirs. If YUSU is able to block a society’s right to free expression, then we will have voted to bend the rules of democracy to serve only our own purposes – not those of democracy. That is not the function of a solid union that claims to represent us all.

The referendum begins at 9.00 Thursday 3rd May (this week) and runs until 12.00 Wednesday 10th (week 3). Take the time – vote NO.


  1. 29 Apr ’13 at 10:28 am

    Not another Jacob Campbell PR stunt please...

    Should also note that the referendum motion is being proposed by Jacob Campbell of UoY UKIP (and UKIP Friends of Israel), who is known for his vociferous anti-Islamic Society and anti-Palestinian Solidarity Society views. He would use this policy, if passed, to petition to reject any speaker he disagreed with – and pressure the YUSU officers to back his side.

    The motion says people could be no platformed who ‘Reject the principle of popular sovereignty as the sole basis of legislation’. The wording is so vague as to be massively open to abuse. Surely anyone who supports the House of Lords by this token could be no platformed – it represents a deviation from total popular sovereignty. Or any supporter of Israel, contrary to Campbell’s intention, could be no platformed – Palestinians have very little popular sovereignty as the basis of legislation, as they are under a crushing occupation.

    There are so many flaws with the motion it should be voted down in its entirety. Dangerously vague, sinister in its motives and a violation of free speech. Awful stuff.

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  2. This idea appears to be a good one, but only on the surface. Once you take away the rejection of fascism etc. then what you are left with is one side to an argument which is not what a well-rounded mind is comprised of.
    To go to these events is a choice, not a requirement. If you don’t want to hear something, then don’t go to the lecture. People shouldn’t be stopped from hearing the controversial as it is often this which encourages us to discard our apathy on a topic.

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  3. This is ridiculous. Universities have an obligation to promote freedom of speech. I will definitely be voting no.

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  4. I’d oppress the lot of you, given half a chance.

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  5. 30 Apr ’13 at 2:54 pm

    Voice of the past

    Just looking at the person in the cartoon – why are YUSU censoring Rafael Benitez…

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  6. 30 Apr ’13 at 6:02 pm

    Curtis Sinclair

    The University of York is plagued by a history of extremists and racists speaking on its campus. Over the past couple of years, we’ve endured monsters such as Yusuf Chambers (who called for “stoning for gays”*1*), Hamza Tzortzis (trustee of the terror-sponsoring Green Crescent , and frontman of Hizb-ut-Tahrir*2*), Muhammed Ibn Adam Al-Kawthari (proponent of marital rape and polygamy*3*) and, of course, the former Liberal Democrat peer, Baroness Jenny Tonge (who at an event at Middlesex University gleefully declared that Israel ‘wasn’t going to last for ever,’ nodding as a fellow panellist accused Jewish people worldwide of being complicit in the 9/11 attacks*4*). All of these people have been welcomed with open arms – or at least with permissive indifference – by both the University and YUSU.

    These people have preached hate, intolerance, racism, sexism and all manner of other bigotries, yet they continue to come here, dividing and angering students. Why? Societies and departments have a number of tools available to them when attempting to foist upon us such abhorrent agitators. These speakers are defended with a number of arguments, the first grounded in denial.

    In the case of Al-Kawthari, the society inviting him insisted that he was a “popular Muslim figure”*5* whose name had been tarnished by false accusations; the fact that Al-Kawthari had called for punitive amputations seemed not to bother them in the least. If denial is the first method of strong-arming these people on to campus, then doublethink is the second. “We do not condone and will never provide a platform for ANY hate speech against any group” was the response of the society involved in inviting fundamentalist hate preacher Yusuf Chambers to York.*6*

    Both of these justifications are, of course, utterly contemptible. But there is a third, used both by the sponsors of hate speech and by misinformed bystanders, which flies in the face of all logic and sense in sanctioning hate preachers: the “freedom of speech” argument – ie. the argument which has been posited in this article.

    “We as Muslims reject the idea of freedom of speech, and even of freedom.” – Hamza Tzortzis (2009), who spoke at York in 2011 after opposition was quashed by arguments in favour of his freedom of speech. *7*

    Those who confuse freedom of speech with the privilege of a platform argue something like this: “This speaker sounds awful and offensive, but I recognise their right to speak publicly, so the people opposing them are terrible fascists,” or something equally condescending. No doubt this will be an argument which is repeated again and again in the coming days, in spite of its absurdity.

    It would be exceptionally difficult to find one student here at York who opposes the right to free speech. Unfortunately, many students (and the vast majority of those making these ridiculous claims) continue to misunderstand the difference between the right of free speech, and the privilege of a platform. Instead, they equate the two, and, as a result, we are in a bizarre position where extremists are allowed to use the University as a platform not only to make outrageous and offensive statements, but also to bash the idea of free speech itself.

    This newspaper is far from innocent.

    They, in the form of Nouse Events’ George Galloway event, invited to the home of Jewish, gay and female students the British front man of a regime that denies the last Holocaust just as it plans a second; a regime which cuts the hands off five year-old girls for wearing nail varnish; which hangs gays by the hundred, and dissidents by the thousand.*8* They invited to the home of disabled students a man who recently called an opponent a “window-licker.” *9* They invited to our home a rape denier, and a man who has lauded the genocidal Hezbollah militia and while called Assad ‘a breath of fresh air.’*10*

    Galloway and the rest have in this country a right which they happily support the repression of elsewhere – the right to free speech; the right to stand up in the middle of the street and shout out whatever nonsense fills his head. There is from no quarter any serious challenge to this, and rightly so. What I challenge is the right of these hate preachers to be given a platform here at York, on this campus, spouting their message of division and oppression in our midst. It is below the dignity of our fine University. It is below the dignity of the student body. Use of this University as a platform is a privilege which they do not deserve, a privilege mindlessly given away by to the detriment of us all.


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  7. Why are students being treated like children? Are we not to be trusted to recognize a racist or a fascist or a rape apologist or a trans-phobic or a sexist or a religious fanatic or a genocide denier when we see one?

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