Free speech is still important

A blanket ban on extremist speakers is a bad idea — and would certainly rebound against us

By Daniel Finkelstein, March 11, 2010

I am sorry, but I can't". With these six words, Robert MacKenzie, Professor of Political Sociology at the London School of Economics, changed my life.

Bob MacKenzie was one of the most famous members of the LSE faculty when I arrived there to study in 1980. As the custodian of the BBC's "swingometer", he was a permanent fixture on political programmes throughout my childhood and, naturally, he knew all the big names in British politics. So when I formed a debating society at LSE I naturally went to see the professor to ask if he would be willing to be a patron and invite some of his mates to speak.

"I am sorry, but I can't," he replied. His problem was that the LSE student union had what was called a "no platform" policy - it was against allowing anyone it thought either racist or sexist from speaking on campus. Under this policy, Tory MPs Keith Joseph and Timothy Raison had been chased off the premises by jeering mobs. He wouldn't ask anyone to speak when such a reception might greet them.

And that's how my life changed. I began to campaign for freedom of speech, for a change in the policy, and within months I found I had left the Left behind, never to return.

It wasn't just as a liberal (small "l") that I campaigned for free speech. It was also as a Jew. Raison and Joseph were not the only people to be chased off the LSE campus. There was also the Hot Gossip dance troupe (sexist apparently) and the Israeli ambassador. The ambassador's invitation was withdrawn because the Left decided that since Zionism was racism, no platform applied to him, too.

It is a short hop from identifying extremists to implementing a ‘no-platform’ policy

This same thinking - Zionism is racism and racists shouldn't be allowed a platform - led to a number of Jewish societies being closed down in the early 1980s. A campaign by Jewish students to win votes in favour of Zionism proved pretty ineffective. The only way of keeping the Jewish
societies open was to argue that freedom of speech is essential.

Why raise all this now, 30 years later? Because I am worried. There is a vicious campaign going on in universities aimed at Jews. All over the country, Islamic societies and allied political groupings are making Israel the focus of hateful propaganda and, understandably, this is making Jewish students very uncomfortable. The arrest of a thwarted suicide bomber over Christmas brought the issue to public attention. He had studied in the University of London. What sort of people are we educating, became a hot political question.

The Labour MP Denis MacShane, who has been a magnificent friend of the Jews, has been writing to his colleagues in government alerting them about extremist activities and not resting when receiving bureaucratic answers. The Board of Deputies has joined in, too. Together, they are doing sterling work, making sure that extremists are identified and extremism is challenged. They are helping to make it safer and more pleasant for Jews to study.

But I do have one worry. It is a pretty short hop from identifying extremists and challenging them, to trying to implement a "no-platform" policy against them. A short hop, but a hop that should not be made.

Because, if we make it, you can guarantee that it won't be long before we Jews end up on the wrong side of the policy. There will be places - quite a few, I reckon - that decide that we are the extremists and not those who assail us. And there will be even more places where the quiet-life brigade decide that Islamic extremism is one side and supporting Israel is the other side and both should be banned.

I can just see it happening. Can't you?

Daniel Finkelstein is executive editor of The Times

Last updated: 4:51pm, May 21 2010


You must be logged in to post a comment.