by Robyn Sands

The narrative of free speech has become increasingly complicated. It would be easy to assume that only teenagers and the most reactionary bigots would be likely to claim their right to free speech had been violated after having their views disagreed with, protested against, or denied a prestigious platform. But as this misunderstanding was repeated time and time again — cries of censorship followed UEA union shops decision to stop buying a newspaper it couldn’t even sell, legitimate protest was written off as silencing and oppression — it seems to have seeped in to the public consciousness.

Today, even the most critical thinkers seem to forget that the right to free speech doesn’t grant them the right to say whatever they like, wherever they like, and to be granted whichever platform they consider themselves worthy of. I have no right to walk in to my local KFC and preach vegetarianism on their property, just as I have no right to claim I am being silenced because The Guardian refused to publish this article.

This narrative recently came to a head as Spiked magazine published a survey of UK universities which claimed that the right to free speech is actively curbed or restricted on 80% of campuses. The idea of free speech they conform to, however, must be quite broad if providing guidance to the community about avoiding homophobic behaviour, in line with the Equality Act 2010, attracts a red rating, as in the case of Essex University. Also attracting a red rating was UWE’s decision to prevent payday loan advertising to students in union buildings. Like not advertising cigarettes in hospitals, the university described this as a common sense effort to prevent exploitation of students.

The tactic of no platforming of various regressive and bigoted views across campuses has also come under fire. Despite it being difficult to argue your right to enter a community which doesn’t want you there and demand a prestigious academic platform, it’s not unusual historically for racism, sexism, and various other isms of the status quo to attempt to force entry to spaces which might be hostile to them and assert their dominance in the national narrative.

However, recently the free speech bandwagon has been hopped on by a rather unexpected crowd. A recent letter to the Observer complaining about the restriction of free speech on university campuses was signed by the likes of Germaine Greer, Mary Beard, and Peter Tatchell.

However, recently the free speech bandwagon has been hopped on by a rather unexpected crowd.

In it they write that ‘“No platforming” used to be a tactic used against self-proclaimed fascists and Holocaust-deniers. But today it is being used to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists.’ It’s an interesting position, one that seems to acknowledge no-platforming as a useful tactic in the past for denying privilege to prejudiced opinion rather than denouncing it as silencing entirely. Instead, they appeal to the liberal mentality by distancing themselves from those people, the oppressors, the people who should be protested, and claim minority status for themselves.

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They cite a few examples of the censoring of minority voices. One was the cancellation of Kate Smurthwaite’s gig at Goldsmith’s College. She claims that it was cancelled because of “intimidation” by those with opposing opinions, however the actual organisers of the event paint a rather different picture — one of an organisational shambles which only sold 8 tickets. Another was the expression of opinion contrary to Rupert Read’s recent outburst of transphobia. Writing to your local parliamentary candidates to tell them that you can’t support their opinions is hardly censorship, and neither is the vitriolic expression of discontent over mediums like Twitter able to be pinned on to woolly hatted liberal students who cannot tolerate a difference of opinion —  more like a symptom of the 21st century.

Opposition to this kind of transphobia, which also applies to the no-platforming of Julie Bindel on the basis of her preaching transphobic sentiment, is assumedly what is meant by silencing “the expression of feminist arguments critical of… some demands made by trans activists” —  the outlandish demand here being the right to use public bathrooms. These vocal anti-trans activists, in which category I include the likes of Germaine Greer, may be a minority voice within feminism —  making them easily dismissed by the feminist and LGBT groups they try to appeal to —  but it’s in no way radical or a minority opinion to suggest that trans women are not real women or to be biologically essentialist in your approach to gender, which seems more like the status quo most feminists and liberation groups are fighting to change. So what we have is a minority fringe opinion within a minority demanding our attention —  and we don’t have to listen to them any more than we do the “self proclaimed fascists and holocaust deniers”.

So what we have is a minority fringe opinion within a minority demanding our attention —  and we don’t have to listen to them any more than we do the “self proclaimed fascists and holocaust deniers”.

As Sarah Ahmed writes “Whenever people keep being given a platform to say they have no platform, or whenever people speak endlessly about being silenced, you not only have a performative contradiction; you are witnessing a mechanism of power.” Meanwhile, police and university managements across the country have been cracking down hard on student protest, and university staff are under increasing pressure to monitor student activity under new counter-terrorism measures. And now, legitimate public outcry is being shamed as illiberal and tolerance of intolerance is demanded.

So what is truly under threat here, is it our right to free speech, or our right to protest?

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