A protest urging the UK National Union of Students (NUS) to reform its Safe Space and No Platform policies took place last Thursday in London. A grand coalition of humanists, atheists, liberal Muslims and human-rights activists set up shop on the pavement outside NUS headquarters. Talking to the students and campaigners involved made this reporter hopeful about the free-speech fightback, which has recently erupted on campuses up and down the country.
The hundred-or-so attendees waved placards, chanted and spoke to members of the press. As students’ union bans are so often claimed in the name of a democratic student mandate, it was encouraging to see a healthy turnout from students themselves. I asked two students from the Goldsmiths Atheist, Secularist and Humanist (ASH) society what their university was doing to bolster free speech – I received a wry smile in return. ‘We find it way harder to operate than any other society’, one said. ‘The students’ union decides whether someone’s unsuitable without explaining why.’
Students from the LSE Speakeasy, which has already had to battle an SU motion calling for it to be banned, voiced their concern about the blatant hypocrisy students’ unions’ show when it comes to censoring speakers. Indeed, while anti-Islamist campaigners are often No Platformed on the charge that they are Islamophobic, Islamist speakers are often allowed to speak unchallenged. ‘I don’t think students’ unions understand the irony’, one told me. ‘They put pressure on us, and end up giving time to people with oppressive ideologies. They should leave people to speak their minds.’
The protest was met with little challenge from the NUS itself. Ever wary of debate, NUS officials had deserted the building. However, they left lists of organisations banned under the No Platform policy ostentatiously taped to the windows. A counter-protest, composed of around seven oddballs, appeared to the side, with protesters holding up mini platforms with ‘NO’ written on them. They weren’t kicking off, though – relations between the two fronts remained cordial throughout.
I spoke to Maryam Namazie, spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, who has herself been on the receiving end of student No Platforming. ‘Universities are a microcosm of the realities we face in society’, she said. ‘They’re meant to be hotbeds of debate and discussion, and if we can’t have free speech there then it’s a very sorry state for society at large. It’s really important for us to fight for this important right.’