Last year the journalist Marta Santiváñez interviewed me about the history of ‘no platform’ as she was writing a chapter for Charlotte Lydia Riley’s edited book The Free Speech Wars. A few excerpts were published in the chapter, but I thought I would post (with Marta’s agreement) the original interview transcript.
This interview was conducted via email in March 2020.
Marta: You argue that the free speech “crisis” has gained currency over the last decade, whilst remaining a right-wing myth for over 50 years. How does this narrative of “crisis” develop? Has the discourse against no-platform itself changed in these 50 years?
Evan: The trope of the free speech ‘crisis’ at universities, particularly in Britain, goes back to the late 1960s. The disruptions of speeches by Enoch Powell and Patrick Wall in 1968 are presented as students being hostile to different ideas and that they were acting in a totalitarian manner. At particular periods over the next five decades, the trope is returned to again and again, such as in the early 1970s, the mid-1980s, the mid-1990s, throughout the 2000s and now in the present.
I think that the reason that the narrative of a free speech ‘crisis’ has gained currency in the last decade (particularly since 2015-16) is twofold. One is the rise of the global far right and what Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter have called the ‘mainstreaming’ of far right ideas. In this global upsurge of right-wing ideas, groups and individuals, there has been increased resistance to it, including on campuses. This has become controversial when those on the ‘alt right’ and the hard fringes of the mainstream right have been invited to speak at universities or colleges (such as Steve Bannon, Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen) there has been some students who evoke ‘no platform’ as a policy and some students who use other forms of protest, such as disruption or picketing. In the eyes of many politicians and in the media (both mainstream and social), all of these actions are seen as a threat to free speech.
The other reason is the push to ‘no platform’ (alleged) transphobes. This is an extension of the argument of ‘no platform’ for sexists and homophobes, which was established by a number of student unions in the 1980s. LGBT+ students had started pushing this in the late 2000s and the NUS LGBT conference passed a motion to ‘no platform’ transphobic speakers in 2015. Since the attempt to ‘no platform’ Germaine Greer at Cardiff University in late 2015, sections of the British media and academia have portrayed the extension of ‘no platform’ to transphobes as an abrogation of the original intention of the ‘no platform’ policy, which was to be used only against explicit fascists and racists.
This binary position between what was implemented in the 1970s and what has been happening now overlooks that there have attempts to redefine the ‘no platform’ policy, especially by individual student unions, since it began in 1974 and that the tactic has constantly been contested and shifted over the years.
Websites such as Spiked Online, with its authors also writing for mainstream outlets such as The Times and The Spectator, have been instrumental in perpetrating this idea of a free speech ‘crisis’. One of the key ways in which this happened was through Spiked‘s Free Speech University Rankings, which gave all British universities a traffic light ranking of their supposed free speech restrictions. This was not only where there instances of ‘no platforming’ but also took into account universities’ codes of conduct and other policies. This was reported uncritically by many in the media and laid the groundwork for politicians to agitate for further action on this.
M: What is in it for the right today in the “free speech wars”?
E: Using the theory of crisis and moral panics developed by Stuart Hall and others at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, the labelling of these events as a free speech ‘crisis’ implies that something needs to be done to alleviate the crisis. Conservative politicians have seized upon this narrative of a free speech ‘crisis’ to promote further government intervention in the running of universities and student union matters, as demonstrated by Gavin Williamson’s comments last month.
As a number of commentators (such as Dawn Foster, Will Davies and Nesrine Malik, for example) have written, many on the right have used this idea of a free speech ‘crisis’ to suggest that all ideas need to be expressed and listened to in the market place of ideas, with the implication that criticism of these ideas is detrimental to their free speech. Protest in its many forms against certain politicians, commentators and academics, has been portrayed as an attack upon free speech, while not recognising that protest is an integral part of free speech. Efforts such as Toby Young’s Free Speech Union can be seen as a right-wing initiative to push back against criticism or protest by those who call out examples of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, especially in higher education and academia. The focus upon universities by these free speech warriors is partly due to the fact that universities have become a particular battle ground where racism sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, as well as traditional class hierarchies and the legacy of colonialism, have been challenged by students and some academics.
M: Have universities ever managed to do this independently from government-led policy?
E: Universities have to pay attention to a number of pieces of legislation, as well as their own policies and codes of conduct, which makes it more difficult to intervene in some ways and easier in other ways. For example, s43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 requires universities and colleges to make efforts to ensure freedom of speech on campus, but universities also have to pay attention to the Public Order Act, the Equality Act and various pieces of counter-terrorist legislation, which they can use to prevent speakers and groups from campus. In my research into the history of ‘no platform’, university administrations have been less willing to ban speakers (particularly from the right) than student unions.
There have been legal challenges in the past when university administrations have cancelled speakers, such as the case at the University of Liverpool, when two South African diplomats, who had been invited by the university’s Conservative Association, were prevented from speaking in 1988-1989. Members of the CA took the university to court, which found that the university had technically erred in taking into account the possibility of public order disturbances in the nearby area (primarily Toxteth) and that the universities could only ban a speaker if there was a threat of public disorder on campus.
M: Is there, in your experience, a real threat to freedom of speech at UK universities today? If so, what is it?
E: One thing that has been raised by NGOs, the NUS and the UCU is the threat to freedom of speech at British universities is the government’s Prevent policy, which requires university staff to report students (and academics) who might be involved in political extremism (which is quite broadly interpreted). There have been multiple stories in the media over the last decade about Prevent being applied in an egregious manner.