Friday, September 25, 2015

No Platform Nonsense

The Platform of No Policy
Since before the days when I was a student myself there have been idiots, usually but not always well meaning ones, on British university campuses who try to suppress opinions they think are dangerous not by defeating them in argument but by banning them. They never seem to realise that this is contrary to what should be the entire ethos of an institution of learning. This week's outrageous decision by Warwick University Students Union to ban an invited guest speaker from an ex-Muslim organisation demonstrates that such authoritarian stupidity is alive, well, and as destructive as ever.
 
At best these bans are hysterically funny, at worst they are truly frightening.
 
Possibly the funniest single moment of my entire student career was at a hustings in the mid-eighties for the election of members of the National Union of Students executive, when an SDP candidate for the NUS exec, Mark Hatton, made an unfortunate slip of the tongue.

Those who were around at the time will remember that the SDP was often accused of having no policies.

It was Mark Hatton's turn to respond to a question about a problem which had arisen because NUS had a policy of "No Platform for racists and fascists" enabling various people to get themselves and NUS into trouble by banning other people who they accused, sometimes very wrongly, of being racists and fascists.
 
As everyone present instantly realised, what Mark Hatton meant to say began with the words

"The problem is the policy of no platform."

Unfortunately for the SDP what actually came out of his mouth was
 
"The problem is the platform of no policy ..."

and that was as far as he got because everyone in the room, including his fellow SDP members, spent the next two or three minutes rolling around helpless with laughter.
 
The slip of the tongue was very funny. But what had happened to give rise to the question was not.

The banning of Sunderland Jewish Society
 
A few months earlier one NUS member student union, - at Sunderland poly as it the institution concerned was then known - bought into the slogan that "Zionism = Racism" and took the offensive and ridiculous decision that that meant they could and should ban the college Jewish society in the name of anti-racism !!!
 
Needless to say this caused outrage, and NUS, getting the line right for once, suspended one of its' own member unions and even organised a demonstration against the banning of the Jewish society.

The Sylvester bill and the 1986 Education Act
 
The banning of Sunderland Poly's Jewish society was the worst, but by no means the only example of the gross abuse of free speech in the name of the "No Platform" policy, and at the time I campaigned with Chris Davies who was the Conservative member of the NUS executive to curb such abuses: one of the people we worked with was Fred Sylvester, a really good guy who was then the Conservative MP for Manchester Withington, and Fred highlighted the issue by tabling a bill in the House of Commons designed to guarantee free speech in Universities.
 
About a year later the government accepted the principle and included a similar clause in the 1986 Education Act.
 
Consequently, University or Student Unions who ban a student society from inviting a speaker the college or union authorities don't like are now acting unlawfully unless they can show that the speaker himself or herself is a threat to public order or likely to contravene legislation such as Blair's "Incitement to Religious Hatred" law.

Unfortunately, however, the mindset of those who want to suppress views they consider evil by banning them rather than defeating them in debate has not done away, and even modest and legitimate limits on free speech such as those imposed by current British law have to be watched lest they become more and more restrictive. As the famous quotation goes,

"The price of liberty is eternal vigilance."


The banning of Maryam Namazie
 
As far as I can discover, the shocking decision of Warwick University Student Union to refuse permission for the "Warwick Atheists, Secularists and Humanists’ Society" to invite a guest speaker from the Council of Ex Muslims of Britain shows only to clearly how some students are willing to twist the facts to provide a flimsy legal justification for banning orders on speakers they disagree with or find inconvenient.
 
The invited speaker, Maryam Namazie quotes the reasons given by Warwick SU for the decision  on her page on the freethought blog as follows.

Warwick University Student Union apparently said that
 
"This is because after researching both her and her organisation, a number of flags have been raised.

"We have a duty of care to conduct a risk assessment for each speaker who wishes to come to campus.

"There a number of articles written both by the speaker and by others about the speaker that indicate that she is highly inflammatory, and could incite hatred on campus. This is in contravention of our external speaker policy:

The President (or equivalent) of the group organising any event is responsible for the activities that take place within their events.  All speakers will be made aware of their responsibility to abide by the law, the University and the Union’s various policies, including that they:
  • must not incite hatred, violence or call for the breaking of the law
  • are not permitted to encourage, glorify or promote any acts of terrorism including individuals, groups or organisations that support such acts
  • must not spread hatred and intolerance in the community and thus aid in disrupting social and community harmony
  • must seek to avoid insulting other faiths or groups, within a framework of positive debate and challenge
  • are not permitted to raise or gather funds for any external organisation or cause without express permission of the trustees."
Of the five bullet points in the Warwick policy, numbers one to three basically require compliance with the law and number five is within the reasonable rights of an institution to lay down for events on their premises.

But there appears to be a problem with number four because if a ban on "insulting other faiths or groups" is interpreted overzealously it can be used to muzzle legitimate debate, and that is precisely what appears to be happening at Warwick.

"Feel Free To Insult Me" and the reform of Section 5

It is because a rule banning insults can be, and was, interpreted in ways which gravely threaten free speech that in 2013 the Coalition Government accepted the arguments of the "Feel free to insult me" campaign for reform of Section 5 of the public order act 1984, which contained such a ban.

That rule was abolished by Section 57 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 which came into force on 1st February 2014, and quite right too.

What does Warwick SU regard as "Highly Inflammatory?"

The Warwick student union decision as quoted accuses Maryam Namazie of being "highly inflammatory." Now if she went around burning the Qu'ran or advocating such an action, or accusing all Muslims of supporting Jihad and terrorism, they might have a point.

So I thought I would look up this lady and her "Council of Ex Muslims of Britain" to see what she and they actually advocate.


Well, she doesn't believe in God. Would Warwick University SU ban Richard Dawkins?

She doesn't approve of Islamic countries applying the death penalty for "apostates" who stop believing in Islam. If Warwick University SU thinks that is a controversial or inflammatory opinion then they really have problems.

She doesn't approve of DA'ESH (the so-called "Islamic state") throwing gays off the roof of tall buildings or Iran hanging them.  I will bet you any money that Warwick University Student Union would also ban her if she expressed the opposite opinion.

She doesn't like "the increasing intervention of and devastation caused by religion and particularly Islam in contemporary society." Personally I would regard that as an oversimplistic piece of scapegoating, but millions of people who are neither terrorists or extremists would agree with her and they are entitled to their views.

The ten points which her organisation stands for are:
  1. Universal rights and equal citizenship for all. We are opposed to cultural relativism and the tolerance of inhuman beliefs, discrimination and abuse in the name of respecting religion or culture.
  2. Freedom to criticise religion. Prohibition of restrictions on unconditional freedom of criticism and expression using so-called religious ‘sanctities’.
  3. Freedom of religion and atheism.
  4. Separation of religion from the state and legal and educational system.
  5. Prohibition of religious customs, rules, ceremonies or activities that are incompatible with or infringe people’s rights and freedoms.
  6. Abolition of all restrictive and repressive cultural and religious customs which hinder and contradict woman’s independence, free will and equality. Prohibition of segregation of sexes.
  7. Prohibition of interference by any authority, family members or relatives, or official authorities in the private lives of women and men and their personal, emotional and sexual relationships and sexuality.
  8. Protection of children from manipulation and abuse by religion and religious institutions.
  9. Prohibition of any kind of financial, material or moral support by the state or state institutions to religion and religious activities and institutions.
  10. Prohibition of all forms of religious intimidation and threats.

In my humble opinion anyone who doesn't agree with the majority of those ten points is a far bigger threat to democracy and the law than those who do. Most of them are things which anyone with the least pretence to belief in democracy, a free society and the rule of law would support and although I  don't personally go all the way with a couple of them - I'm not in favour of disestablishing the Church of England or banning religious charities and institutions from receiving support for legitimate public service work for example - there is nothing in that list of ten points which is in any way shape or form a threat to the good order of society.

Let me be frank: there are opinions which Maryam Namazie has expressed and things she has done which I very strongly disagree with. Her opponents in the Islamic community did manage to make the charge stand up that she has done things likely to cause offence. What I could not find was any evidence that she has ever incited hatred against human beings for merely believing in a religious faith, even though she is very critical of all faiths, or that she has ever incited violence.

The response of any religious believer who is also a democrat to Ms Namazie's views should be, to paraphrase the words usually associated with Voltaire

"I disagree with what she says but will defend to the death her right to say it."

I cannot avoid the impression that the student union authorities at Warwick University either lack the intellectual capacity to appreciate the difference between criticising a religion and inciting hatred against the people who believe in it, or else that they are abject cowards who don't want to risk the flak they may get from certain quarters if they stand up for free speech.

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