Students don’t need protection from ideas

A student opponent of the illiberal NUS has a message for its new president: get rid of No Platform.

Richard Reynolds

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Topics Free Speech

In the same week that the National Union of Students elected Liam Burns as its new president, its current leader Aaron Porter reminded us just how illiberal and free speech-fearing the NUS has become.

The occasion for Porter’s most recent censor-happy outburst came with the news that the student union at the University of Westminster had elected Tarik Mahri and Jamal Achchi as, respectively, its president and vice-president. The problem for Porter is that both are linked to the Islamic group Hizb ut-Tahrir, an organisation that is pretty keen on establishing a global Islamic state. According to Porter, articulating ideas along these lines is not something the NUS allows: ‘Our rules state individuals or members of organisations or groups identified as holding racist and fascist views are not allowed to stand for election, or go to, speak at, or take part in conferences, meetings or any other events.’

So, regardless of the fact that Mahri and Achchi were democratically elected by the University of Westminster’s own student body, Porter is keen to identify their views as racist and fascist and therefore bar them from participation in student politics. For Mahri and Achchi, there can be no freedom of speech. And, for the rest of the student body, there is no access to the full range of views on a topic because a small bureaucratic elite of students has deemed certain ideas to be too dangerous for them to be trusted to make their own minds up about.

Driving Porter and the NUS on in their war against supposedly unacceptable opinion is something called No Platform, an idea so cherished by senior apparatchiks that it was incorporated into the NUS’s constitution in 2008. And it is this No Platform rule that the NUS is attempting to enforce throughout the student body.

Those students who argue for No Platform seem to be in two camps. The first suffer from some sort of Kim Jong Il-esque paranoia that the BNP or Islamofascists are at the gates of our university campuses just awaiting the opportunity to turn the nation’s students racist. This patronisingly assumes that students are an uncritically receptive bunch capable of being whipped into a crazed mob at the merest hint of BNP or Islamist rhetoric.

The other camp of students in favour of No Platform, while less obviously hysterical than their fellow no-platformers, is in fact far more insidious. This group talks of creating a safe space to ensure that people do not feel intimidated or feel unable to make their voices heard. They point out that if ‘dangerous radicals’, in this case Hizb ut-Tahrir, are allowed to debate on the same platform, many people might not be able to ‘access’ the events. They’ll feel excluded, picked on. The types of student that need protection from such radical views range from the traditional, such as black students or women, right through to the absurd, such as socialist or ‘nervous’.

Yet I have seen black, women and even nervous students take the stand, as I have myself at the NUS annual conference, and say ‘I don’t want or need your “protection”’. And they have argued this for a good reason. The idea of ‘protection’ assumes that people have a right not to be offended, that they have a right not to hear students with views influenced by Hizb ut-Tahrir. But there is no right not to be offended. Why should there be? These are students after all; they are at university to experience new and often offensive ideas.

Students are supposed to be engaging with the big ideas in society. It might be how to make a nuclear bomb in physics, or it might be the rationale for using the nuclear bomb against Japan in history. If university is not about these difficult and challenging ideas, then it really is nothing more than a finishing school to equip us with the correct skills for the workplace. If free education, an issue close to the heart of many students, is about anything, it should be about the freedom to explore ideas. The truth is that the greatest impediment to getting a free education is not the fees but the NUS’s policies which effectively keep students wrapped in cotton wool.

But there is some hope. Porter is going, largely thanks to the way students reacted against his insipid politics. Furthermore the universities of East Anglia, of Bath, of Durham, of Warwick and others have shown that when their student unions allow their student bodies to actually vote on No Platform policy, they reject it outright (for example, 75 per cent voted against in the poll at UEA). Sadly such votes have been seen by some contemptuous NUS officers as evidence of the need for No Platform policies. After all with students making such stupid decisions at a referendum surely they can’t be trusted to vote in an election with dangerous radicals standing!

So what of the future? New NUS president Liam Burns was previously president of NUS Scotland. My hope is that he imports something from Scotland with him: the Scottish Enlightenment. With figures such as David Hume and Adam Smith to the fore, the Scottish led Britain intellectually during the eighteenth century, crushing the false barriers in knowledge and propagating the idea of the rational, robust individual. This is surely the type of individual that could cope with a few people being a bit mean about them at student hustings. So out with the old, out with Porter, and hopefully out with No Platform.

Richard Reynolds is a recent law graduate from the University of East Anglia, where, in 2007, he led the first successful campaign to overthrow No Platform at a UK university.

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Topics Free Speech

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