THE BLOG

Our House, Our Rules

19/11/2015 17:46 GMT | Updated 19/11/2016 10:12 GMT

The surge in interest of students' unions and our democratic structures is exciting albeit somewhat baffling. In a democratic state, the sister - these days apparently less renowned - of the right to freedom of speech is the right to assemble. We, as students, unite around our wide-ranging interests as students, the same way that any other group, from environmentalists to EU-sceptics, from Catholics to fox hunting campaigners, do. Students' unions are autonomous, democratic membership organisations. With that in mind, we are absolutely entitled to decide who uses our spaces and who we will lend our ear to.

This should not be all that controversial or spark reactions like the ones we have recently witnessed. After all, I do not see protests outside of churches, demanding more atheists at their sermons. I do not see protests outside of Trade Unions, demanding more free market economists at their general assemblies. And neither should we.

The Times is under no obligation to publish every bigot with an opinion piece, and The Times are not suppressing free speech every time they choose not to push forward a 'controversial' agenda. When students' unions decide not to wear sombreros for a club night, they are not banning anything. They are not infringing on anyone's right to free speech, they are not using No Platform nor are they persecuting anyone. They are just not using ethnic stereotypes to sell alcohol.

When students voted against us selling The Sun, it was widely reported as a 'ban', what that coverage failed to recognise - perhaps for its lack of sensationalist cogence - was that any student can read The Sun in our building. We simply made a democratic decision, that within our own shop, we would not make money from it anymore. Students, the people who are in charge of what we do, collectively made a decision about the commercial services of their Union. Lumping examples like these into a discussion about No Platform is either an expression of a worrying confusion of terms, or a deliberate attempt to misguide the debate.

Where The Times has a dual obligation to their journalistic ideals as well as their commercial viability, we as students' unions only have an obligation to our membership. We hold elections, we pass policy, we hold campus wide referenda. We experiment with democratic innovations and we engage students in large scale representational systems. David Aaronovitch's right to freedom of speech allows him to call me a Stalinist (although I suspect that people who were persecuted under Stalinism would find this hyperbole unsettling) and his right to freedom of speech allows him to comment on my appearance and nationality (although the reasons for this are quite unclear coming from a self-proclaimed rationalist) and I would defend his right to do that from now until forever. David Aaronovitch's right to freedom of speech, however, does not allow him to dictate how our students use their freedom of speech.

Is it really a measure of a healthy Students' Union that it invites transphobics to Transgender Awareness Week? Should we measure the vibrancy and contentiousness of our debates on how many racists views are uttered during our Black History Month? Is the number of students hurt, unsafe or threatened defining what a great Holocaust Memorial Day looks like?

Many students up and down the country believe in the No Platform policy, not because they don't want to hear offensive views, but because they hear offensive views everywhere else. International students are subject to biometric ID cards, random landlord checks and a discriminatory NHS levy. Over half of international students do not feel welcome in the UK. Students already live an anti-immigration society whether or not there are racists speaking on campus. A quarter of women students will experience a sexual assault throughout their time at University. They already live through rampant sexism whether there are rape apologists in the students' union or not.

Let me give an example of Izzy Lenga, my colleague from Birmingham. Last week, she found posters across her campus stating that 'Hitler was right'. She posted it on Twitter to responses implying she put it up herself and saying Hitler should have finished the job.

Let me give you another example. My friend Dee - who is a current student - has twice been assaulted by members of far right nationalist groups. She has been the victim of racist hate crimes. She has passed her attackers on the street.

Do you think Izzy and Dee need to debate these people in their students' unions to understand and debate anti-semitism and racism? In a space where free speech is the only - only - democratic principle, this is not just acceptable, but apparently encouraged.

While I am happy to defend the principles of No Platform policy, I simultaneously feel that my Union might become a bit of a red herring for your criticisms. In the past two academic years - the time I have been involved with Leeds University Union - we have never enforced our No Platform policy. We have held hundreds and hundreds of student led events, we have filed hundreds and hundreds external speaker requests and we support over 320 different student-led societies. All of these numbers are greater than ever before and indicative of an ever increasing curiosity and willingness to expand our own horizons.

Our campus - and our students' union particularly - is colourful, powerful and full of empowered students with their own stories, experiences and interests. Our students are from 140 different countries, they go abroad to study, the go on placements, they meet more people throughout their lives than any generation before them, they have vast and different experiences. And they obviously are not interested in inviting fascists on campus - and why should they be?

This apparent moral outrage happens in the face of students taking control of the political spaces they inhabit. Engaged in the values of their Union, the political processes and the direction it takes, students are in fact in many ways model citizens. Model citizens that continuously surprise, inspire and provoke each other. Students that consistently debate what they want in their own Union - their political spaces - to look like.

In fact, the students of Leeds University Union will soon vote about our No Platform policy again, as is the norm when a policy has been in place for three years. We are very proud that this decision will be made democratically by students - not columnists - after a series of debates and consultations. And with our commitment to contentious debate, I would like to extend an invitation to David Aaronovitch, to come and debate with our students on No Platform.