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.