I’m old enough to remember when the people who students wanted to shut down on campus were real pieces of work: Nick Griffin, Anjem Choudary, fascists or Islamists who, given half the chance, would turn Britain into a bigoted, authoritarian backwater. How quaint that feels now. So low has the bar for censorship on campus sunk, that not only are trans-sceptic feminists as likely to be shut down as the fash these days, but centrist Tories can also find themselves in the crosshairs.
This is the news that Amber Rudd has been no-platformed by a student group at Oxford University. Rudd was due to speak at a UNWomen Oxford UK Society event last night, discussing her time working as women and equalities minister and her experiences as a woman in politics. But an hour before the talk was due to take place, the group put out a statement, saying the event would no longer go ahead and apologising for ‘all and any hurt caused to our members and other wom*n and non binary people in Oxford’.
It seems the event caused a backlash due to Rudd’s ‘past comments or policies’. Presumably this refers to her time as home secretary, a position she resigned from in the wake of the Windrush scandal. But this makes the decision to cancel the talk all the more pathetic. Rudd should be held to account for her role in Windrush. So why not go to the event and challenge her? One of the great privileges of being an Oxbridge student is that prominent politicians will regularly do talks on campus. Why not seize this opportunity?
The small cliques of students who routinely get events shut down on campus tend to see themselves as radical. No-platforming, in their minds, is part of a righteous confrontation with the forces of reaction. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. No-platforming is the coward’s way out, whoever it’s aimed at. It achieves nothing, other than cushioning these privileged young people’s ears from views they disagree with and sparing them the bother of having to come up with a cutting question to ask from the floor.
That this is about Amber Rudd, a politician as middle of the road as a traffic island, makes it all the more remarkable. No-platforming was introduced by the National Union of Students in the 1970s to stop literal fascists from speaking on campus. Even that was illiberal and self-defeating: no-platforming a speaker might keep him or her off campus, but it won’t defeat their ideas. Still, that we’ve gone from no-platform for Fascists to no-platform for Wet Tories shows how embedded censorship now is at many universities.
Indeed, this isn’t even a right-left issue anymore. Many of the most high-profile no-platformings of recent years have been of radical feminists, from Linda Bellos being disinvited by a Cambridge society to Julie Bindel being no-platformed by students’ unions at Manchester and Sheffield. Trans-sceptical academics now face routine intimidation at their own universities. Meanwhile, left-wing atheists like Maryam Namazie have also been shut down for being ‘Islamophobic’.
But none of this should surprise us. Because this is the thing about free speech: either you defend it for everyone or you give up your right to complain about censorship. If you concede the principle that some views are so toxic and hateful they should never be allowed to be aired on campus, censorship will only spread, and could end up biting you next. One of the groups who backed the adoption of the no-platform for Fascists policy in the 1970s was the Union of Jewish Students. But just a few years later its members found that Zionists had been added to the blacklist by various students' unions.
The lesson in all of this is that we need to stop picking and choosing which wrong-speakers we’re willing to defend. It shouldn’t take the no-platforming of a mainstream politician for us to take campus censorship seriously. Nor should we only care about censorship when it’s people we agree with who are on the sharp end of it. We need to make the hard, principled arguments for free speech, rather than waiting for the easy cases. Free speech is for all – for fascists and feminists; for Islamists and Amber Rudd – or it is for none at all.