Alberto Torres is a 3rd Year BSc Political Economy student, co-president of KCL Action Palestine and Social Science and Public Policy School representative at the Student’s Union. He is also a political campaigner and a libertarian socialist.
Every now and then, a speaker or event that speaks on behalf or tramples on the oppression of marginalised communities, is shut down or experiences an attempted shut down by students in a UK university (usually BME, white lefties, women and LGBT+). This is usually followed by “moral panic” in the media and in outcries from privileged sections of the student body portraying disaffected students as irrational and extreme. “Freedom of speech”, is seen as the sacrosanct moral emblem with which to judge and to (ironically) attempt to stifle student’s right to organise politically and protest.
Unfortunately, the background and true facts behind no platforming and protest are frequently distorted and overblown, which is ironically what divides and polarises the student community. One such example is the alleged banning of the song blurred lines from student spaces across universities in 2013 (a song that many believe promotes rape culture), which raised considerable controversy and condemnation from liberal and reactionary sections of the student body. In reality, it was discussion and democratic decisions made by students in student unions that resulted in the decision to stop playing the song at union bars and clubs. “Banning” is an inaccurate description, for it implies students were forbidden from listening or playing the song themselves. Yet, it is the term that keeps circulating today.
Students using the freedom of speech emblem to protest such events are often as ideological and biased as the people they try to argue against. Though there is nothing wrong with bias (in fact I believe we should all recognise and have an ideology of some sort), there is a certain irony in the way more privileged and reactionary student groups use this ‘emblem of honour’ in some situations and not others. An irony whereby the exaggeration and hyperbole they create ends up contributing to the division and polarisation they so much critique.
Though every event has its own particularities, the occurrence of dissent, no-platforming and protest often raises questions and criticisms of the misunderstood policy of “Safe Space”, and especially over freedom of speech. In LSE for example, students recently set up a society whose sole purpose is “to bring free speech back to their university”.
If there’s a hypocritical and politically charged term, it is freedom of speech. One of the most common misconceptions around this term is that freedom of speech equals the right to a platform. But that you may have the freedom to be racist and not go to jail does not result you have an automatic entitlement to get on a public platform and promote racism. Words are powerful and have consequences. In a world of structural racism, sexism, and inequality, discriminatory views and ideas about migrants, women, and other minorities often leads to abuse and even deaths. It is important to recognise that our decisions to air someone else’s views, as innocuous as it may seem, have political implications. We should be working to critique and challenge systems of domination, not to perpetrate them.
As an example, when the leader of the quasi-fascist British National Party was invited to BBC’s question time (whose policies include a white only membership and returning descendants of migrants to their countries of origin), it saw a historic 3,000 increase in membership in one night despite the apparent ‘ridicule’ the party leader endured by the panel. Similarly, racists like the US republican candidate Donald Trump, who claims Mexico should have been invaded by the United States, has gone to lead the polls as a favourite contender for the Republican Party after substantial media coverage (and we have unintentionally played a part sharing and disseminating his message). For the typical white liberal student these people may be laughing material to be reproduced and invited to debates, but for oppressed peoples giving platform to these views often costs lives.
True freedom of speech does not exist even in the most liberal societies. Holocaust denial is illegal in 184 countries and even student unions such as LSESU and KCLSU have a no-platform policy for Holocaust revisionists and deniers. Any form of hate speech that may incite violence is usually also forbidden. Yet, the genocide of more than one hundred million indigenous Americans is celebrated through events such as “Christopher Colombous day” and “Thanksgiving day”, and denying the Nakbah (ongoing Palestinian ethnic cleansing since 1948) is a very common salient feature of liberal Zionists brought to universities by advocates of Israeli apartheid. Even for the most blindly ideological, it should be explicit that “freedom of speech” is a term filled with double standards.
Recently, an event at King’s College London with war criminal and former head of the Shin Bet (the Israeli Security Service) Ami Ayalon was protested by disaffected students and non-students, a majority of which came on their own account (For more information about the speaker and KCL Action Palestine account of events). The protest sparkled controversy and hyperbole, and with the help of Zionist groups it reached the BBC, the Daily Mail, and even newspapers in Israel and the UK parliament (with considerable distortion and event fabrication). Claims that freedom of speech is under threat in academia and allegations that students felt intimidated and unsafe on campus have reached many ears and both the union and the university have been taking concerted action to address the later. At the same time, the student’s union trustee board vetoed a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions resolution in support of Palestine two years ago, and an academic conference on “International Law and the State of Israel” in Southampton university last year was cancelled due to pressure of Zionist groups and the Israeli embassy. It would seem “freedom of speech” is not a moral virtue to be used without distinction, but a weapon of the privileged to be used when it advances their agendas.
Regarding the later, not one dared to consider how a Palestinian student (or someone of Palestinian origin) may have felt about someone who presided over the torture of their own people being platformed. Neither, that pro-Palestine students in campus may feel intimidated and demoralised after a myriad of hate messages, inflammatory attacks by right wing politicians, and relentless demonization by the media. KCLSU Safe Space policy is about providing inclusive spaces that are free from intimidation and harassment for all students. In fact, one of the provisions in KCLSU Safe Space policy is that in given situations KCLSU will “ensure a balance of opinions at any academic discussion or debate”. Even legitimate protest and unwarranted disruption could be potentially avoided in many of these events should Safe Space be actually implemented according to the nature of events.
The incident at KCL and the regular use of the rhetoric of “freedom of speech” to counter protest and dissent is part of an ideological defense to justify existing racism and privilege. From the racist publications of Charlie Hebdo to attacking the cancellation an Oxford debate where two white males intended to publically debate women’s reproductive rights, defending Zionists’ right to bring apartheid apologists and war criminals to student campuses, and attacking LSE’s decision to ban a rugby team propagating rape culture and homophobia this tactic keeps being reproduced over and over and over again. Meanwhile, “freedom of speech” is side-lined by these same groups when students are criminalised and silenced for (for example) questioning the legitimacy of Israel, or for platforming human rights defender and former Guantanamo prisoner Moazzam Begg under the PREVENT government strategy.
If “freedom of speech” holds such inconsistent meaning, perhaps we as students should utilise terms with real moral value: social justice, equality, and anti-capitalism. As explained, it seems freedom of speech is an emblem worn to give our political agendas moral superiority when we can, when we want, and when we have the power to do so. A political prize for the privileged that can be taken off and hidden when it doesn’t promote our interests.