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Free speech needs its limits

I doubt there are many Sussex students who have not heard freedom of expression cited as a defence for the indefensible. As such, it came as little surprise when in last week’s Badger (dated 22.11.10), Nick Thorne of the debating society called upon it as an argument against the Students’ Union’s No Platform  for Fascists Policy. However, once again it was based on a conception of freedom of speech which failed to recognise the importance of balancing it with other rights; in particular, the right of democracy to defend itself from those who seek to undermine it. The No Platform Policy can only be truly understood in the context of the opposing arguments of freedom of expression and the restriction of hate speech.

Although last week’s article raised important issues relating to the effectiveness of the policy and the danger of restricting freedom of speech as a precedent for the future, its conclusions were extremely flawed. The basis of the policy is not, as the writer suggests, a fear that fascist groups like the BNP will succeed in inciting racial hatred, it is premised on not treating the Party’s hateful and profoundly undemocratic message as legitimate. There is no duty to tolerate intolerance. Further, contrary to the assertion that Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time did not gain support for the party, polls taken in the aftermath recorded a 50 percent increase in support nationwide.

Nor can the categorisation of the BNP as racist be validly contested. The party was twice declared to have an illegally discriminatory membership policy and its leader has been imprisoned for incitement of racial hatred. Moreover, contrary to the suggestion of the piece, the Students’ Union has a unique legitimacy in deciding which groups should not be given a platform due to its democratic credentials: students can vote for representatives and proposals and even stand for election themselves. Put simply, it is a grassroots example of democracy defending itself.

It is, of course, a shame that the issue was obscured at the AGM by the descent into hyperbole. However, the writer’s comments in regards to this are particularly revelatory. He refers to the fact that reference to the Nazis in debating competitions is against the rules, “but the Students’ Union works by different rules”. One may wish to extend this point to “the world plays by different rules”, as herein lies the fatal flaw in the article’s position. An unshakeable adherence to freedom of speech in a debating society where everyone has freely chosen to come and participate may be fine, even healthy. However, the encroachment upon the lives of ordinary students of different faiths, ethnicities, nationalities and sexual orientation without their consent by a bigoted and hateful organisation, such as the BNP, is far graver.
One must not forget that many thousands of students live on campus each year; these individuals cannot “walkout” if they find something offensive as the writer suggests. It would be the height of naivety to contend that those individuals could remain unaffected by simply not attending the speech as few would remain untouched by the waves such a controversial event would create. It is essential to keep in mind the impact such hate speech has on people’s lives, particularly vulnerable groups, and not simply reduce the debate to an academic exercise.

The article having disparagingly commented on one individual’s claim that human rights were beyond debate insists on elevating one human right, freedom of speech, to such a level that it is to be unquestioningly upheld for those who wish to undermine the rights of others. Unfortunately, one must turn the writer’s charge of naivety against him. His final sentence “Bring on the Debate” is indicative of his fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the BNP. The BNP do not base their strategy on winning debates, they do so on sowing dissension and exploiting the sensibilities of those who feel obliged to treat their repugnant ideas as legitimate. Put bluntly, they are not a debating team and the problems they present are not a game.

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