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The Limits of Free Speech on Campus

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Last week, I wrote a very controversial blog which received quite a bit of attention - much more so than my previous writings. In calling for University students to avoid inviting George Galloway to their campuses, I received a storm of criticism for supposedly restricting that hallowed liberty, the right of 'free speech.'

I did not actively call for censorship - I did not call for Mr Galloway to be imprisoned for holding the views that he does (in fact I explicitly noted that 'I don't deny the man's right to free speech'). What I wrote was a perfectly reasonable request for student societies to avoid hosting a man who is quite clearly a divisive figure - with the blatant capability to inflame campus tensions and create poisonous atmospheres.

In calling for this, I supposedly violated orthodox notions of free speech. I turn my back on Milton, I ignore Locke - and of course, I trample on Mill. Of all people, John Stuart Mill is frequently and somewhat ironically brought up in defense of completely unrestricted freedom of expression. Those who invoke his name have clearly not read what he actually thought. Indeed, it is precisely Mill's reasoning which has informed my worldview. In writing about liberty, Mill also seeks to protect it. He thus famously writes:

'Acts of whatever kind, which, without justifiable cause, do harm to others, may be, and in the more important cases absolutely require to be, controlled by the unfavourable sentiments, and, when needful, by the active interference of mankind.'

It is no point invoking the name of someone if you clearly haven't read their work. In seeking to avoid harm done to others, Mill classifies that speech acts have the potential to do harm - and thus must be restricted in certain cases. As he writes slightly earlier:

'An opinion that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer.'

Mill notes it is perfectly reasonable to hold a specific opinion - even if one may find it to be disagreeable. What is not tolerated is the individual's freedom to say what they like, wherever they like, and whenever they like. One is not allowed to speak about the supposed evils of corn-dealers at a sensitive time, in a sensitive place. It causes harm to others.

The analogy of the corn-dealer may easily be applied to campus environments in the UK. Campuses are fragile communities. To invite a rabble-rouser like Anjem Choudary or a thug like Tommy Robinson, is to unravel the delicate cohesion of student communities. Inter-racial, inter-faith and inter-cultural ties can easily fall apart. The rights of minorities are at stake when speakers ranging from far-right racists to Islamist extremists are given an opportunity to potentially incite hatred.

George Galloway is no exception to this - and indeed is no stranger to incitement. As the former Chairman of the Labour Party, Sir Ian McCartney has stated, Galloway has 'incited foreign forces to rise up against British troops.' Given his long list of deplorable views - and the effect his rhetoric has had in the past - this man may clearly be perceived as a danger to the welfare of students on campus.

No-platform policies are not a call for 'censorship.' They are an attempt to protect students who could be disaffected, isolated and even threatened by the invitation of controversial individuals. That is why minority Student Unions ranging from the Union of Jewish Students to the National Black Students' Campaign ardently support them.

No-platform policies are not a form of Orewellian censorship - they are a reasonable concept encouraging self-regulation. Rather than 'banning' individuals outright, we as students must place significant pressure on the relevant authorities to withhold the right of certain individuals to speak at certain times on campus.

We must not kid ourselves. There is no unrestricted right to free speech. I am not for instance allowed to use this platform to defame another individual. The most coveted document in modern times supposedly embodying all civil liberties, the European Convention on Human Rights, does not hold freedom of speech as an inviolable right in itself. As article 10 stipulates:

'The exercise of these freedoms [of speech], since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime...'

In the dreadful shadow of genocide and mass persecution, the draftees of the ECHR recognised that freedom of expression is a privilege which can easily be abused - and thus must be regrettably restricted at certain times and in certain places. That is why we have laws preventing incitement against racial and religious hatred. That is why we have laws regulating the content of broadcast media. It is even why we have laws forbidding forms of public nudity.

Nobody can do what they like, when they like, where they like. Society does not work like that - and it's about time we as students stop our self-righteous whining and recognise this basic reality...