Philosophical questions about fascism and free speech

Logos for Phil, BNP, TCD

Last Tuesday, in the My Education Week column in the Irish Times, Paddy Prendergast, the Provost of Trinity College Dublin (and thus my boss) wrote a diary of his working week. This is how his entry for Wednesday, October 5th, began (with added links):

I meet with the Senior Dean and Dean of Students to discuss the student debating society, the Philosophical Society’s invitation to the BNP leader, Nick Griffin, to participate in a debate later this month. The issue has received considerable media coverage, but more importantly there are objections from our own college community. Freedom of speech is an important principle as is that of self-governance of student societies. We agree to meet with the Philosophical Society and consider this serious matter further. …

This seemed positive enough. Both freedom of speech and student society self-governance would pull in favour of allowing Nick Griffin to speak. Don’t get me wrong: Griffin’s views are loathsome, and the BNP is a hateful organisation, but I defend their right to spew their foul and horrid bile simply so that it can be exposed for the obnoxious and indefensible nonsense that it is. But this debate is not to be. According to a statement on the TCD website:

The University Philosophical Society and Trinity College Dublin have decided to withdraw the invitation to Mr Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party. Mr Griffin was invited by the Philosophical Society to participate in a debate on October 20th next. After careful consideration of the matter, involving a series of discussions between the Philosophical Society’s officers and the College and taking all safety considerations into account, the decision was taken today (October 14th).

The College encourages balanced debate and freedom of speech at all times. It is a very important part of academic life, particularly among students and their societies. As part of the education of our students, the College also promotes the autonomy and self governance of student societies. These are important principles observed by the College.

Following careful review of operational and safety issues, the Philosophical Society and the College are now not satisfied that the general safety and well being of staff and students can be guaranteed. Access to the College will not be given to Mr Griffin or members of the BNP.

The University Philosophical Society feels it is unfortunate that circumstances have arisen under which the planned debate cannot go ahead without compromising safety.

The original invitation was predictably controversial. The decision to rescind it has garnered quite a bit of media coverage (BBC | | Irish Examiner | Irish Independent | Irish Times here and here | PA | RTÉ | | | University Times | UTV); and this has been welcomed by some of the visit’s critics (including the youth wing of the Irish Labour Party, and the Socialist Workers Party).

I am dismayed by this turn of events. Having several times wrapped themselves in the mantle of freedom of expression, TCD and the Phil have now let the mantle slip. Those who claim to respect freedom of speech must actively do so when it is difficult; else they do not really respect it at all. Freedom of speech is not always self-executing – when push comes to shove, it is necessary to be active in its defence and support. If a society such as the Phil invites controversial speakers, making a grab for the headlines, then that society must take all necessary steps to ensure that the controversial speakers actually have the opportunity to speak. Otherwise, the hecklers in a hostile audience will have a veto on the speakers. And the heckler’s veto is antithetical to freedom of speech. Hence, the US Supreme Court has rejected it as inconsistent with the freedom of expression guarantees in the First Amendment.

Both Trinity and the Phil should therefore have protected the process of freedom of speech by ensuring that Griffin’s debate could have gone ahead. I don’t think that it is sufficient to say that public safety could not be guaranteed – public safety can never be “guaranteed”. The scale of the threat to public safety has not been explained, and the protests thus far do not seem to have crossed the line from nuisance to danger. Instead, Trinity and the Phil should have taken active steps to ensure that, having invited Griffin, he actually got to speak. And these active steps would have to include necessary measures to ensure public safety. Indeed, the Phil should have put all this in place before issuing the invitation in the first place. But having issued the invitation, the Phil’s failure to make appropriate arrangements to ensure that the debate could go ahead is almost as culpable as the hecklers’ veto. What has happened is a failure of freedom of speech, and it lies at the feet not of the hecklers but of TCD and the Phil. I think that it is particularly disappointing when any university fails to protect freedom of expression; and I think it uncommonly wretched when that university is mine. Ensuring controversial speech on campus is the price of retaining academic freedom for a free society. It is a price we must be prepared to pay. Protesters must be allowed to make their point, but, by the same token, they must not have a veto on the speech of others. (I have made such points before in respect of similar controversies in other institutions, and I am saddened that I must now make them about mine).

The best answer to speech is more speech – discussion might not change the other person’s mind; but the discussion can show up the infirmity of that other person’s position; and discussion can influence the neutral or undecided observer in a way that shrillness never could. Nick Griffin is an unprepossessing and unconvincing debater who was thoroughly exposed when he appeared on BBC tv’s Question Time two years ago. He would no doubt have suffered the same fate at the Phil, had he been allowed to attend. As Ferdinand comments, Griffin “would easily have been shown in the debate to have no views worth admiring”; and, as OurManInStockholm put it, nothing “would contribute more to the collapse of his philosophy than seeing his hatred stillborn on the floor of an Irish debating chamber”. Indeed, about two-thirds of the respondents to a poll conducted by took the view that far-right political groups should not be denied a platform to speak.

Writing last week before the decision to rescind Griffin’s invitation, my TCD colleague Ronit Lentin argued strongly that Griffin should not be allowed to speak at Trinity College:

Despite what the proponents of ‘free speech’ would say (and remember free speech is rarely accorded to immigrants, worried about their immigration status, family reunification, finding employment and accommodation and many other issues), I am definitely against allowing Griffin to debate multiculturalism in Trinity. For starters, he is hardly an expert on the topic and ultimately attacks only Islam and Muslims. Secondly, in the current recession racism is on the increase and Griffin’s anti-Islam and anti-immigrant rants can only support those who believe that job losses and the recession are the fault of new immigrants. Thirdly, we are in real danger that many a young Irish person would be swayed by Griffin’s demagogic powers. Finally, and more specific to Trinity – in a university which casts itself as a multicultural, welcoming environment for international students, having Griffin speak freely at a debate staged by a student society intent mostly on attracting attention and notoriety, damages the image Trinity is aiming to project.

I thoroughly disagree with all of these points. First, on this blog, I have have consistently defended free speech, and I accord it to anyone and everyone equally – to worried immigrants, to Ronit, and to Nick Griffin. Second, the best way to demonstrate that Griffin is not an expert on multiculturalism is to give him a platform to demonstrate his ignorance. Third, he patently lacks demagogic powers; but even if he did, I have sufficient faith in our students that they would not be so easily swayed. After all, Ronit and I and our colleagues in Trinity all seek to inculcate critical thinking and analysis in our students; these skills are for life, not just for the seminar room; and Griffin’s speech to the Phil is just the kind of context for which these skills are taught and learned. Finally, I agree that Trinity ought to be a multicultural, welcoming environment, and I fervently hope that it is; but, first and foremost, it is an academic institution, committed to academic values and a liberal environment where independence of thought is highly valued. It was a bad day for these values when Griffin’s invitation was rescinded. We must learn from this, and do better next time.