Time to take the moral high ground

By Stephen Hoffman, November 22, 2011
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I have an unswerving commitment to freedom of speech, including the freedom to offend. I also believe it is better to tackle problems head on, which is why I do not believe we should back no-platform policies on campus.

The very real threat of extremism in universities could be managed better if you debate with the far left, far right and Islamic extremist speakers, because if you believe in the rightness of your cause, you should stand up for it. There are many speakers and organisations who oppose the vile comments of Normal Finkelstein, Abdel Bari Al Atwan and Nick Griffin so it is time we gave them the chance to speak out.

Unfortunately, this puts me on a collision course with the Union of Jewish Students, the group that supposedly represents me as a Jewish student. Like me, they are legitimately worried about the rise of antisemitism and want to reduce it. Unfortunately they feel the best way to do this is to push for no-platform policies at universities and other venues.

A no-platform policy is when the university and union work to prevent any extremist speakers appearing on campus. There are many problems with this approach. As unions often veer to the left, anyone who isn't from this political background is seen as a dangerous extremist, including someone like Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP.

When a speaker is banned, they take on the mantel of a martyr for freedom of speech

Additionally, it leads to tit–for tat banning attempts. By trying to stop an Islamist speaker like Abdel Bari-Al Atwan from being given a platform, his supporters will then try to stop anyone speaking who defends Israel. Moreover, universities are meant to be bastions of academic freedom. As Voltaire said: "I hate what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it".

When a speaker is banned, they take on the mantel of a martyr for freedom of speech and their cause often becomes more attractive. Consequently, when David Irving was banned from speaking in Europe and jailed in Austria, he cast himself in this role and received more media coverage worldwide than he would have if he had been allowed to speak and his absurd arguments about the Holocaust had been shown up by opposing speakers.

I fear no-platform policies have the same effect. To quote the late US Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, taking on the other side works because "sunlight is the best disinfectant".

Moreover, official support for a no-platform policy opens up advocates of Israel to charges of hypocrisy. We loudly condemn University Islamic Societies for trying to ban speakers we invite, yet at the same time we stoop to their level and try to ban their speakers.

It's time to take the moral high ground and show that while freedom of speech may be inconvenient, we have faith in students and understand that just hearing an extremist will not turn most people into one.

Most sensible people want to reduce antisemitism, stand up for Israel's right to exist and tackle extremists. However, the present policy by UJS is harmful. We could be much more effective if we stood up for freedom of speech, as this would allow us to invite the myriad of speakers we have at our disposal to destroy the opposition's arguments.

Stephen Hoffman is a fourth year Politics and Parliamentary Studies at Leeds University. Follow him on Twitter, or read his blog.

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Last updated: 5:05pm, November 22 2011