Don’t ban Tommy Robinson, debate him

Ex-English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson has been banned from speaking at yet another university. Oxford Brookes Students’ Union, where he was due to speak at a student event last week, said his presence posed a likely risk of ‘public disorder’. The event was cancelled because a group of around 130 students, accusing Robinson of spreading ‘fascism and white supremacy’, had planned a protest. 

The controversial Lutonian was invited to speak by Harvir Dhillon, president of Oxford Brookes’ Quilliam Society. Ironically, Robinson had been booked to talk about free speech on campus. But whatever your views on the man, censorship enforced by a protesters’ veto is not a victory over Robinson, it’s a victory for censorship.

This ban is symptomatic of a wider decline in open debate across our universities. Last year a meeting held by the King’s College London Israel Society, featuring the former head of the Israeli secret service Ami Ayalon, came under attack by demonstrators. A student was assaulted and the police intervened. In this new world of censorship, no one is spared. Even veteran human-rights activist Peter Tatchell was empty-chaired last year by a students’ union official.

This year’s findings of spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings – published on Saturday – reveal that nine out of 10 UK universities restrict speech to some degree. The FSUR 2017 gives Oxford Brookes an Amber ranking under its traffic-light system, indicating that it has chilled free speech. Last week’s incident likely won’t help in improving its ranking next year.

But the people who most lose out from campus censorship are students themselves. Back in 2014 Robinson gave a talk at the Oxford Union, in spite of a groundswell of opposition from groups like Unite Against Fascism. The event provided students with the opportunity to openly challenge his views on Islam – and they didn’t hold back. This was exactly the kind of open debate that is the hallmark of Western liberal democracy – and that students go to university wanting to take part in.

What’s even more shocking about Robinson’s Brookes ban is that it involved the police. In a series of tweets last week, Dhillon said, ‘I wanted the event to go ahead to give Tommy a chance to voice his opinion. But Thames Valley Police have advised the university that letting the event go ahead is a risk to students’ physical safety with the likelihood of intense protests.’ Dhillon told me that he is concerned that free speech is being ‘held hostage by the fear of disorderly protests’.

‘Providing a platform shouldn’t be seen as meaning an endorsement of the views espoused on it, but instead an opportunity to hear an opposing viewpoint, and challenge it’, he said. Indeed. In banning Tommy Robinson, universities are not simply denying his right to speak, they are denying students their right to challenge him.

Hardeep Singh is a writer based in London. Follow him on Twitter: @singhtwo2

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