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 | DailyUpdate.ie | Irish Examiner | Irish Independent | Irish Times here and here | PA | RTÉ | StudentNews.ie | TheJournal.ie | 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.