Brendan O’Neill

Free speech can’t just apply to those you agree with

Free speech can't just apply to those you agree with
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Finally, the Stepford Students, those safe-spaced, spoilt-brat censors of anyone who thinks differently to them, have had their comeuppance. Following an outburst of Twitterfury, Warwick Students’ Union (WSU) has backed down on its ban on Maryam Namazie, an Iranian-born secularist and stinging critic of Islamobollocks.

Having initially said Ms Namazie could not darken Warwick’s campus with her dangerous arguments against, err, religious intolerance and in favour of liberty and democracy, WSU has now said she is welcome.

Anyone who thinks universities should be sites of open and sometimes rowdy debate should welcome WSU’s climbdown as a strike for freedom and a blow against the stiff, prim, censorious misanthropes who govern 21st-century student life.

The original ban on Ms Namazie summed up everything that is wrong with today’s student leaders. First, there was the cavalier sacrificing of freedom of speech at the altar of pinch-faced bureaucracy. Ms Namazie couldn’t speak because she had failed the SU’s ‘risk assessment’ test. That is, she has ‘risky’ views that might rattle some students’ minds, which is surely what kids go to university for — to have their immature little brains rattled.

Orwell imagined a boot stamping on a human face forever; under the tyranny of the Stepford Students, freedom is more likely to die under an avalanche of risk-assessment forms, buried alive by the clipboards of illiberal dullards who think ticking boxes on a form is more important than allowing people the liberty to utter what they believe to be true.

Then there was WSU’s grotesque marshalling of a fantasy army of victimised Muslim students. It said it was simply standing up for ‘the right of Muslim students not to feel intimidated’ by Ms Namazie’s criticisms of Islam. The paternalism is staggering. The largely white, middle-class overseers of student life presume that Muslims are too fragile to hear a sore word about their belief system, and thus must have their eyes covered by their SU.

Once, children were used as a moral shield to justify censorship; now student unions use Muslims and black people and women in the same way, citing these people’s dainty sensibilities as a justification for banning all sorts of stuff. Never mind being angry with Ms Namazie — Muslim students at Warwick should rise up against their SU which views them as pathetic children.

So, yes, the lifting of the ban on Ms Namazie is heartening. But only half-heartening. For a question lingers: why was there more fury over the ban on Ms Namazie than there was over, say, the banning of sexist comic Dapper Laughs from Cardiff University? Or the banning of a homophobic Islamist speaker at the University of East London? Or the censorship of the rugby club at LSE for handing out a flyer that contained the word ‘mingers’?

Too many people defend freedom of speech only for people they like. Secularists went mad about the ban on Ms Namazie but say next to nothing about the banning of religious hotheads on other campuses. Feminists defend free speech for feminists but actively campaign for the shutting-down of comedians who tell rape jokes. Lefty students weep and wail if a fellow lefty student is censored, and then, without so much as a smidgen of self-awareness, go back to no-platforming the far-right, the Zionists, the transphobes.

Science writer Ben Goldacre said he’d boycott Warwick over its ban on Ms Namazie. Will he also boycott UEL, LSE, Oxford, Cardiff, and too many other universities to mention which have also banned speakers or societies or ideologies? If not, why not? Presumably it’s because he thinks Ms Namazie has something important to say, whereas Islamists, Ukippers and others do not. In which case he’s not defending freedom of speech. He’s just defending speech. The speech of someone he admires.

I recently shared a panel with Beatrix Campbell, who signed a letter to the Observer defending the right of Julie Bindel to speak on campus. I asked her if she would defend the right of Dapper Laughs to make sexist jokes at Cardiff. Her silence was deafening. A writer for OpenDemocracy, affronted by my suggestion that Dapper should enjoy the same speech rights as Julie, argued that ‘it is possible to support freedom of expression in principle without feeling motivated enough to campaign for an expression of ideas which you disagree with’.

In short, you can support free speech in principle without supporting it in practice. Only you can’t. Freedom of speech is indivisible. It’s either enjoyed by everyone or by no one. The banning of a homophobic speaker should outrage us exactly as much as the banning of Ms Namazie, because every attack on free speech is an attack on free speech. The words aren't important — the freedom to utter them is. If you fight for free speech for people you admire but not for people who turn your stomach, then you aren’t fighting for free speech. You’re just standing up for your mates. Which is nice. But it has sweet FA to do with freedom.

Every time supposedly liberal observers turn a blind eye to campus bans on people they loathe, they embolden the intolerant climate in universities. They actually help to pave the way for what happens to people like Ms Namazie. Yes, some of Namazie’s own supporters unwittingly helped to seal her fate. The fools.