Tommy Robinson, founder of the English Defence League and now head of PEGIDA UK, is due to give a talk at the University of York in January. And some students aren’t happy about it. The university’s socialist society has claimed to have bought 50 of the 220 tickets because, they claim, ‘a lot of people don’t want this awful man on campus’.
These students are attempting to No Platform Robinson in the same way a whiny a school child puts his bag on a coach seat to stop someone sitting next to him. In response to the plan, Robinson tweeted: ‘If any York University students have a problem with me or believe I am a fascist then come along and embarrass me with your debate not violence.’
For once, Robinson is right. Yes, he founded far-right anti-Muslim groups, a lot of the stuff he says is flat-out crap and he’s far from a free-speech absolutist. (Would he extend free speech to Islamists? I wouldn’t bank on it.) But he’s right to say that the way you challenge ideas you dislike is through debate, not censorship. The fact that it falls to Tommy Robinson to make this point is an embarrassment.
For what it’s worth, Robinson is not a fascist. He’s a misguided right-wing populist who is deeply intolerant of Islam. But even if he was everything these students say he is he should be challenged through open debate.
Believing in free speech means defending the freedom of those you hate, and being willing to hear and to challenge their views. Clearly, the members of York’s socialist society only believe in free speech for people who agree with them. In trying to block this talk, the members of the socialist society are not only showing their own intellectual cowardice, they are also denying their peers the opportunity to challenge Robinson’s views.