26 November, 2007

Should debating societies invite nasty people to speak?

I'll develop this over the day as I really should be doing work!

But background, first, before opinions, later.

The Oxford Union has invited David Irving and Nick Griffin to speak on a motion about free speech.

David Irving writes books which deny the holocaust. He has been imprisoned in Austria under their holocaust denial laws. He lost a libel action, in the UK, which he brought against penguin books where they claimed he denied the holocaust and he disputed it.

Nick Griffin is the head of the British National Party. A party which is gaining increasing support in elections and which proposes inter alia a complete halt to immigration to the UK and repatriation for immigrants who are already here. (BNP 2007 manifesto here)

Inviting these people to speak has meant that the OU is all over the news with the debate focusses on, not only freedom of speech generally, but whether university debating unions should provide a platform for the views of people many find abhorrent.

Many universities, such as Manchester, have a 'no platform' policy. If the MDU wished to invite Irving and Griffin, it would be kicked out of the union.

Ironically, the union does not have a problem with the MDU allowing Hizb ut Tahrir (HT) to speak on 1st December. (HT's official website here)

I have to say that I'm somewhat torn on these issues. I do not think the BNP etc should be banned by law. However, I think that probably the relationship between the state and a nasty person is a different one than between a non-state organisation and a nasty person.

I think there is a problem that in giving these types of people a forum, especially this type, it legitimises their point of view. No one invites the people who are campaigning for trolls under London bridges to come and speak on that issue (though on the background issue is another matter) because we all recognise that trolls and bridges is simply not a legitimate point of view on the grounds that it's silly. So, if we're willing to self censor for the silly, why not for the nasty?

Well, one point I find very valid in the context of the BNP is that by not letting them speak, we lend credence to their claim that they are being victimised by a liberal elite. As a student union is probably the epitomy of 'liberal elite', inviting them to speak undermines this claim.

I also understand many of the points made here.

I have something of a problem in unions saying that they will ban people such as Irving and Griffin from speaking, but not ban HT. If you are going to ban one set of people because they are nasty, you should surely ban others. I take it as given that Manchester Union does not agree with the stance of HT on, say, Israel and Jewish people. I would love for someone to justify what the difference is.

Both the BNP and HT are extremist groups. Both are gaining in democratic legitimacy- HT through it's position in the 'Respect' party. Both say very nasty things about other groups.

Why the different stance?

At least in my mind I am consistent. I would not invite either of them to speak, I would not ban others from inviting either of them to speak, I am uncertain what to do when they request that they be allowed to speak. On the basis of my uncertainty, I probably now (changing my mind from a couple of months ago) say that they should be allowed to speak, but they should have to agree to abide by certain restrictions. If they are unwilling to abide by such restrictions, they should not be allowed to speak.

More later....

UPDATE 1: A balanced view here raises an interesting sub-question: What right do the protesters have to try and stop a free organisation of people exercising its right to free association?

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