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Why Page 3 and Charlie Hebdo Are Not the Same

23/01/2015 11:20 GMT | Updated 22/03/2015 09:59 GMT

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre everybody wants to remind us that they support free speech. Now men on Twitter have decided to equate the successful No More Page 3 campaign with the attack.

Clearly the new vogue for Article 10 has its drawbacks. Mehdi Hasan calls them "free speech fundamentalists". I'd call them apologists for racism, sexism and homophobia, but I lack Mehdi's pith. These people equate the denial of a platform (often for the most extreme and offensive views) with the denial of the right to free expression. Brendan O'Neill of Spiked.com argues that the attack on Charlie Hebdo was a more violent symptom of a general intolerance for free speech which stretches across Europe. Mr O'Neill was one of those scheduled to speak at the Oxford University abortion event blackballed for not including a single woman on its panel. He cites social media campaigns against Dapper Laughs and Page Three of The Sun as evidence for his theory. Spiked has even starting its own campaign, "Free Speech Now". In the Times Education Supplement Claire Fox, Director of the Institute of Ideas, argues that policies like NUS's "No Platform", which bans individuals who are racist, misogynist, or homophobic from speaking at member institutions, represent an attack on freedom of speech. They are joined by a plethora of Twitter supporters.

Mehdi is astute to point out that the right to freedom of speech does not create a duty to be offensive. But there is a more important distinction to be drawn: "Expression" (which is a right) is not the same as "platform" (which is a privilege). Having a right to free speech means that one cannot be punished for one's expression or coerced into changing that which one chooses to express. The obvious caveat is the prohibition against using one's expression to incite violence against others (In much the same way that one can't use one's freedom of movement to commit violent acts). This is different from having a platform. While freedom of expression requires protecting all individuals equally against coercion, the issue of platform revolves around questions of who gets to use their freedom of expression from a more privileged position than others.

Platform is valuable commodity and the supply of privileged platforms far outstrips demand. A spot on Newsnight, a column in the New York Times or a Channel 4 show will allow one to speak to a much larger audience than, for example, a student radio show, a letter to the local paper or a home movie. This is precisely because very few people have the former while almost everyone has, at some point, availed themselves of one of the latter.

This means that giving one individual or party a particular platform inevitably means denying that platform to many others. The more valuable the platform the more parties are inevitably denied access.

When protestors objected to the debate on abortion at Oxford it was because, in selecting an all-male panel, Oxford Students for Life had effectively denied women access to their platform. Protestors (understandably) felt that the event, on an issue that primarily (albeit not exclusively) affects women, lacked legitimacy when it denied women a voice on its platform. Putting "On The Pull With Dapper Laughs" on air meant that any number of other shows were denied that platform.

"No platform" campaigns, like that in Oxford or against "On The Pull", rarely say "he should not be allowed to air his views". That's not the point. They say "why has he been given that platform?" This isn't an exceptional question. The justification for "no platform" campaigns lies, not in censoriousness, but in an attempt to raise the standard of debate. One rarely sees "no platform" campaigns against experts in their field (no matter how radical their views) and no one is advocating dropping page three of National Geographic. "No platform" campaigns tend to target individuals or organisations who, fundamentally, attempt to convey the message that women, homosexuals or people of a different race or religion are, not only inferior, but should somehow be punished for their inferiority. Not only are these views unoriginal, they are rarely backed up by anything more substantial than misunderstood statistics and prejudice. It's not unreasonable for campaigners to ask for someone reasonable, well qualified, expert, original or funny instead. Similarly when, in a nation of more than ten major ethnic groups and multiple genders, yet another privileged platform is given to middle aged white men, it's not unreasonable argue that the organisers should do better. Mr O'Neill isn't a doctor, a public health professional or recognised ethicist. It shouldn't have been a surprise that people objected to OSL's decision to deny a platform to someone better qualified (or just someone with uterus) in his favour.

Put another way, if Dapper Laughs wants to take a soap box down to Hyde Park Corner and moan about the demise of his broadcasting career, that's his right. But if I want to argue that something better should be on TV, I have a right to free speech too.