Platforms and Privilege: The Price of Freedom of Speech

13/10/2015 17:29 BST | Updated 13/10/2016 10:12 BST

Four years ago, the Cambridge Union Society platformed Wikileaks founder Julian Assange amidst controversy and hostility. Those opposing the invitation were held up as straw men: thorns in the side of an institution that regards itself as the final bastion of 'free speech'. The conversation surrounding his presence was often derailed, reduced to the idea that freedom of speech is immutable: a blanket to be thrown over an uncomfortable reality that our choices are not free from consequence, nor are they formed in a vacuum.

Four years on, and the union still fails to distinguish between free speech and platforming by inviting Assange to speak yet again in what must be read as an affront to the voices who are so frequently silenced not only by that society, but by society more widely.

The controversy surrounding Assange is complex, and whilst his retreat is not to be held as conclusive evidence that he is a rapist, his refusal to return to Sweden, for whatever reason, is certainly ironic when he is speaking at an institution that prides itself on the promotion of free speech. His self-imposed imprisonment represents a denial of exactly that. In refusing to return, Assange is silencing the voices of the women who deserve to have their voices heard through a fair process.

By hosting him, the union is doing the same.

Here we might fall into the pitfalls of a broad-brush discussion of free speech versus no platforming. Free speech is not something that exists unquestionably or uncritically. Article 10 of the Human Rights Act states that the exercise of this freedom 'carries with it duties and responsibilities', and can be inhibited on the grounds of the 'protection of health and morals' and 'the protection of the reputation or rights of others'. On those grounds alone, the Union should have retracted the invitation. And maybe, just maybe, the Women's Officer for the Union should have been included in those discussions and negotiations. But she wasn't. Instead, a suspension of ethical judgement was applied and the costs of hosting this potential rapist were disregarded in favour of entertainment, forcing the resignation of the Women's Officer and other officers who found their positions untenable.

Organising a large scale event to listen to an alleged rapist impart a worn and tired narrative he has already delivered at other unions across the country is not a demonstration of free speech. It's a platform. I could stand on a street corner, arguing the fact that of around 85,000 rapes that take place in the UK annually, only 13,000 are reported. I could stand in public and state that, of these 13,000 rapes, fewer than 1,000 will result in a criminal conviction. I could voice my concerns at the union's choice in public, and nobody would listen. But put me in the wood-panelled chamber of the union with a video camera and a bunch of blokes in suits, well, the entire discourse changes. The nuance of free speech is this: free speech operates from the bottom up, and if it is imposed from the top down, then it is a platform.

Here we begin to realise that this issue has never really been about free speech. Julian Assange doesn't need a platform. This is now the third time in four years that he has been invited to speak at the union. His voice has a status that shadows any ever given to survivors. So, if the union really wants to talk about free speech, then why aren't they talking about the voices of the women who are denied the freedom to speak because Assange refuses to re-enter the Swedish legal system? Why aren't they critically looking at how society systematically silences women and minorities? And why are they sending the message that these women are not to be believed, while simultaneously hosting a consent forum which is designed to cast light on issues around "marginalised groups" and "the likelihood of disbelief, dismissal and hostility"?

We must ask why Assange's status as a 'controversial' figure requires a third invitation, at the cost of further excluding those already alienated by the union's privileged discourse. In his stead, why wasn't the head of Women's Aid chosen? Or another speaker from a minority group who hasn't been heard before? The Union has a robust invitation process, but maybe they should ask why the ratio between women invited to women accepting is so low. Is it perhaps because the space is not safe for women, and, despite the work of many to improve it, the Union continues to prove that with its morally dubious, and reactionary, priorities.

The union is not a judge and jury; it is not the institutional body to hold this man to account. Nor does it operate free from consequence or social responsibility. Every single one of our choices are mediated through a network that ties us to those around us. To ignore this is to ignore the responsibility we have to explore how our personal choices create and replicate political messages relevant to other's lives and relations. To ignore this is to shirk the responsibility of rigorously questioning the environment in which we conduct ourselves and our choices.

The freedom of speech should never be sold as entertainment, nor should it come at the cost of silencing those who consistently fail to be heard.