14 November 2007
What limits, if any, should there be to freedom of expression? Peter Tatchell interviews Luke Tryl, President of the Oxford Union, and Brendan O’Neill, Editor of Spiked. Weyman Bennett of Unite Against Fascism agreed to participate but he was unable to attend at the last minute.
Peter Tatchell writes:
Should fascists have free speech? Or are some people so dangerous – especially to minority race and faith communities – that it is legitimate to limit their freedom of expression?
Why should fascists be given free speech when they would, if given half a chance, deny free speech to others?
Critics argue that right-wing extremists like Nick Griffin and David Irving are either fascists or fascist sympathisers and apologists. They say these men’s ideas and policies are so threatening that they should be denied public platforms in order to protect vulnerable communities and in the interests of social cohesion and solidarity.
It is possible that if there had been no free speech and no platform for Hitler and the Nazi Party in the early 1920s – if their meetings and marches had been stopped – they may not have grown in strength and influence. The Nazis might not have come to power and the Holocaust and World War Two may not have happened.
Other people argue that the best way to defeat the far right is by challenging and debunking their ideas through education and debate. Fascist ideology doesn’t stack up and can be demolished by rational, informed argument. Suppression won’t make their ideas go away. They will fester underground. Open scrutiny and critique of fascist policies is the most effective way to erode public support and sympathy.
The issue has been bought to a head by the Oxford Union’s decision to hold a free speech debate on 26 November 2007, headlined by Nick Griffin, leader of the neo-Nazi British National Party, and Holocaust revisionist historian, David Irving.
Nick Griffin is the leader of a far right party that has a history of promoting racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and prejudice against Muslims – and of using intimidation and violence. Griffin has a conviction for inciting racial hatred. (1)
David Irving was branded by a British judge in 2006 as ‘a racist, an anti-Semite and an active Holocaust denier.’ (2)
Support for free speech does not oblige the Oxford Union or any other institution to reward these men with a prestigious public platform, which will give them an air of respectability, raise their public profile and allow them to espouse their intolerant views.
Under British law, Nick Griffin and David Irving still have the freedom to espouse their views at any public meeting they wish to organise, or in any leaflet they wish to print.
Inviting them to the Oxford Union is qualitatively different. It is helping them propagate their bigotry. No institution is required, in the name of free speech, to proactively promote the purveyors of prejudice. Not offering hate-mongers a platform is not the same as banning them.
The invitations to Griffin and Irving should be withdrawn by the Oxford Union and alternative non-bigoted speakers invited to discuss what limitations, if any, should be placed on freedom of expression.
Free speech is an important human rights issue that should not be cheapened by the sensationalism of parading of pair of right-wing extremists in the chamber of the Oxford Union.
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