As you may or may not be aware, YUSU is holding a referendum on a ‘No Platform’ policy next week. If passed, the policy gives the staff of YUSU the power to choose who speaks at the University.
It states that if a student lodges a complaint about a speaker coming to York, the 5 full-time YUSU officers vote on whether a speaker will be allowed to speak. The new powers would award the Union the ability to deprive them of a platform.
This policy would compound extensive powers the Union already wields over speakers. YUSU can dictate the subject matter of some talks – including the outright banning of certain topics of discussion – an entitlement it used several times last year. The new power would be a much more disturbing movement away from the culture of free speech. If passed, it would not only undermine the very protection that societies seek under good union, but would deal a harmful blow to true academic debate.
There will always be people who disagree with a speaker’s views – it is the very nature of political debate. Without disagreement, debates do not further. Picture a debate in the House of Commons with only one party on both sides of the room – the air would be stale with agreement, and the antagonistic fizz that drives progress long bubbled away. True debate requires an argument of two sides, even if not necessarily in the same room at the same time.
Yet the proposal presumes that attendees of a talk would be brainwashed by bigoted propaganda, an assumption both patronizing and insulting to the swathes of students who may go to see speakers for various reasons. The vast majority of us see ourselves as independent agents who explore our own beliefs and ideas, and who are both willing and able to disagree. The institution of any university exists as a place of debate, and should not be mistaken for a political mouthpiece. It is in such privileged institutions that we come to understand our enemies, precisely so that we can undermine them.
I am not condoning racism or fascism. It is far too easy, however, to frame this policy as an attack purely on the BNP et al, without considering its long-run implications for other speakers whose ‘controversial’ views are, in fact, best explored in the speech itself. This is not a curtailing of free speech for the speaker so much as the society who invites them – this policy would send out the message that the Union is only willing to represent students whose views accord with its supposedly neutral views. At this point, you may argue that I am misrepresenting the function of this policy, available here. Among other traits, it proposes to deny platforms to those who “Reject the principle of popular sovereignty as the sole basis of legislation, and/or the right to free speech.” Muse on the irony of the final phrase for a few seconds before moving on.
Indeed, much of the time, we invite bigoted speakers for the very purpose of allowing them to lambast themselves. Just think back to Nick Griffin on Question Time in 2009, and question whether the idea that ‘platforms’ are necessarily positive for the speaker still stands. Or, what of speakers who hold questionable private beliefs, but are here to talk about dance, microbiology, tennis, or their latest novel – not their views on, say, their home country? The policy makes no mention of the reasons for inviting the speaker, or their topic, which may be wildly exaggerated and misrepresented by opponents.
Furthermore, the concept that the members of the Union are both politically neutral, and suitably studied in the kinds of issues associated with this form of censorship, is debatable. I mean no personal disrespect when I point out that the majority of us voted for the Sports Officer to look after our rugby tours, not to make value judgments on the merits of a speaker. With a voting majority of only 1 person in a 5-person vote, the final decision would be both arbitrary and unrepresentative of the 16,000 students the Union represents.
And while the current committee may well address the merits each speech honourably, YUSU has a vested interest in avoiding the kinds of people who bring ‘bad press’ and who are likely to get External Relations on their backs. Sadly, it is much easier for the Union just to vote against a speaker in order to avoid the hours of emailing and risk-assessment that they might entail. All too easily, subsequent committees might relax their standards of interrogation. In doing so, they would undermine the very protection that sovereign societies seek under YUSU.
Democracy is a fundamentally uncomfortable situation – while it gives us the right to vote for our own beliefs, it also affords others the right to vote for theirs. If YUSU is able to block a society’s right to free expression, then we will have voted to bend the rules of democracy to serve only our own purposes – not those of democracy. That is not the function of a solid union that claims to represent us all.
The referendum begins at 9.00 Thursday 3rd May (this week) and runs until 12.00 Wednesday 10th (week 3). Take the time – vote NO.