Comment: The price of free speech

A debate on multiculturalism at Durham University had to be called off last week because of the possibility of violent action. But this didn’t come from right-wing extremists, it came from the NUS.

By Jonathan Moore

The Durham Union Society (DUS) proposed to conduct a debate entitled ‘This House believes in a Multicultural Britain’ on Friday They invited commentator Kulveer Ranger and Conservative MP Edward Leigh to propose the motion with elected British National Party (BNP) representatives Andrew Brons MEP and councillor Chris Beverly providing the opposition.

However, prior to the event Durham’s vice chancellor received an e-mail from two senior National Union of Students (NUS) officers requesting it be cancelled and asking for an apology to for any offence caused by its organisation in the first place.

Furthermore, the vice chancellor was told “you may bring legal consequences upon yourselves” and that both the NUS and Unite Against Fascism (UAF) were organising “coach loads of students” to protest the debate, adding “if any students are hurt in and around this event responsibility will lie with you”.

This chain of events caused something of a stir in the north east where the story made the Durham Times and saw the creation of a Facebook group – Durham University Students for Freedom of Speech – which has so far gained almost 3,000 members.

While the decision to hold or cancel the event is entirely the business of the DUS, it once again raises the increasingly unpleasant debate about free speech in this country.

This is not about the BNP or their political views, however abhorrent they might be. They are, after all, hardly bastions free speech. We need only look at the rather forceful ‘ejection’ of a Times journalist from their press conference on Sunday to see where their views on free speech and freedom of the press lie.

They have found themselves at the centre of the debate more by accident than design. A fringe political party with very little public support, their views have no place in a modern society and they, like their predecessors, will no doubt recede into history and be replaced by the next right-wing group purporting to represent the views of ‘true Britons’.

The debate is about whether groups such as the BNP, religious fundamentalists or any other extremist organisations who garner a modicum of support should be given a forum to extol their objectionable beliefs, or whether they should be starved of the oxygen of publicity.

To begin with, we have laws – lots of laws – which the police can use to prevent those preaching hatred, violence or persecution from speaking in public. Indeed, even the ‘glorification’ of terrorism, an ambiguous term at best, is illegal in Britain. But what to do with those who skirt inside the law, who manage to manipulate their speech so it remains legal but also unsavoury?

The simple answer is the explanation – all too often incorrectly attributed to Voltaire – of what encapsulates free speech: While I may not agree with what you say, I will defend to the death your right to say it.

Free speech fosters dissent, they are by their very nature inextricably linked concepts. But too often in this country those championing Iranians who speak out against their corrupt government will in the same breath seek to silence those in Britain whose radical politics challenge their own.

Those very same people would be outraged if they read that New Zealand students had threatened violence against a university because they had invited a Maori speaker in favour of improved land rights.

They would be in uproar upon learning that a mob had tried to physically force its way into an American television studio and blocked the roads outside, trying to prevent the filming of a political debate which featured a robust and forthright atheist.

They would cry out if an elected Aboriginal Nationalist politician was physically attacked by protestors outside Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Thankfully none of these have happened yet UAF and other such groups have taken comparable action here in recent months, the only difference being their target in each case was a member of the BNP.

Of course, it could be said these are spurious arguments as the BNP represents something far more insidious than any of those, but that would miss the point entirely.

Only defending the free speech of those we agree with is no defence of free speech at all. In fact, it is in the face of those we most disagree with, those whose views we find most repugnant, that the right to speak must be defended most vigorously.

The BNP seek to divide Britain. It is the duty of all those who disagree with that view to challenge them at every turn and strip away the thin veneer of respectability they have managed to coat themselves with.

But when groups like UAF, who have never sought political office and have no mandate from the people, choose to challenge their right to speak with intimidation, coercion, aggression and threats then they too must be fought at every turn.

While I may agree with the views they hold, I will not defend their methods or actions.

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