“…Without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element.” – Rosa Luxemburg
Originally, the No Platform policy was enacted by the NUS so that racists, fascists and other extreme types could be restricted in the parroting of their grotesque views. However, as with all restrictive power structures, No Platform has become an excuse for silencing not only views that are often considered extreme, but also those that officers in the NUS and certain Students’ Unions find disagreeable.
Pro-life views, Atheist Flying Spaghetti Monster posters, philosophical societies, moderate religious speakers. These are just some of the things that have been removed, barred or censored on the basis of NUS’s No Platform Policy, because they were deemed offensive, emotionally harmful, or morally repugnant. Take the South Bank Atheist Society’s Flying Spaghetti Monster poster, which was removed from the society on the basis that it had caused “religious offences”. Yet as a person of faith I don’t find the image of the Flying Spaghetti Monster remotely offensive and I suspect very few religious people would. As the Islamic reformer, Maajid Nawaz, said earlier this year of a Jesus and Mo cartoon, “My God is Greater than that”.
But regardless of whether religious people find atheist cartoons or images offensive, in an egalitarian society outspoken atheists have the right to express their contempt of religion. Because, although it may get religious people’s backs-up, (and trust me Richard Dawkins works me up at times) the greatness of living in a climate of free expression is that we are free to challenge those views and turn monologue into dialogue. In such an atmosphere truth and falsehood are able to grapple – as the radical John Milton once said – by which light is shed upon both, leaving it to the people to distinguish right from wrong.
Consequently, there is nothing radical about the wish to stop certain voices from being heard. Instead it is a conservative measure, because once you prevent certain groups or people from challenging a consensus, intellectual thought is unable to evolve. This is why radicals, revolutionaries and activists throughout history have been for open platforms and complete freedom of speech. From Emmeline Pankhurst who praised Manchurians as “defenders of free speech and liberty of opinion.” To Frederick Douglass who stated of Boston in 1860 that “Here, if nowhere else, we thought the right of the people to assemble and to express their opinion was secure.”
Back in the Sixties, Students themselves fought against the censor for their right to voice what were once considered extreme opinions by conservatives; sexual freedom for all, the acceptance of homosexuality as being part of one’s identity, not a sin and civil rights for people of all colours. Fifty years on, that censorious character which held radical thinking back has simply adopted sheep’s clothing.
Yet universities are supposed to be the epicentres of intellectual freedom, erupting with dangerous, transgressive ideas which have the potential to make society flourish. At a university, if nowhere else, one would have thought the right of people to express their opinion was secure. But even at Sussex University it has emerged that last year our Student’s Union attacked an article published by The Badger because the piece dared to criticise the SU. After further clashes, it even decided to suspend The Badger’s printing rights for a couple of weeks – a despicably authoritarian act that only the worst totalitarians of history would be proud of.
As a result, I want students to call for an end to the patronising campus censorship we’ve been subjected to and on our campuses claim back our right to listen to the all the ideas this world has to offer. And I call on Student’s Unions, Sussex’s in particular, to reject the conservative, infantilising premise of No Platform – that students can’t be trusted with dangerous ideas – and instead have an open platform policy upon which reason can defeat ignorance.
This is the only way by which we can be intellectually free to break down the foundations of racism, misogyny and extremism and bring about revolutionary progress.