Freedom to speak or freedom from harm? The history of the No Platform debate

The publication of the Spiked! freedom of speech index, the Government’s Prevent Agenda and almost weekly battles over No Platform at universities across the UK indicate that the debate over freedom of speech on campus is firmly back on the agenda. And so it seems an appropriate time to take a look back at the debates over No Platform and campus free speech: where current rules and precedents came from and the debates that led us directly from the 1970s to 2016.

Regulations relating to freedom of speech on campus form part of the Education (No2) Act 1986: Section 43 places a duty upon the institution to have a code of practice in place that will, as far as is reasonably practical, ensure that all members of the institution and visiting speakers enjoy freedom of speech and further that the use of premises is not denied to groups on the basis of the views they hold. This bit of legislation has been both sidelined and tempered – sidelined by legal advice that suggests SUs can sidestep it, and tempered by the Charity Commission and now legislative pressure from recently passed terrorism law that focusses more on managing risk.

Why did all of this come about in the mid-80s?

Under the 1986 Act, if it is thought likely that a meeting may be controversial then it becomes a designated event, and as a consequence subject to additional costs and organisational requirements to ensure that a university fulfils its obligations. But where did the Act come from? Students have always demonstrated about controversial speakers and university authorities, and governments have often been less than happy about it. Some of the debates and demonstrations of the late sixties and seventies went to the very heart of the argument over which groups should be able to influence the way in which universities were run. The 1986 Act finds its antecedents in what became known as the No Platform Policy.

First agreed at NUS Conference in April 1974; No Platform was developed against a backdrop of increased racial tension; the views expressed by Enoch Powell were attracting support and the National Front had polled 4.7% in the Newham South by-election. Government increases in overseas student fees were seen by many as highly discriminatory. NUS policy on the issue was modified at an Extraordinary Conference the following June.

In opening the conference, President John Randall attacked the press for the way in which they had misrepresented NUS discussions:

The record of the media on this subject has not been impressive. True, there has been an honourable attempt by many newspapers to maintain a fair balance of comment. However, they scarcely outweigh the blatant lies of the Daily Mail…or the editorial witch-hunting indulged in by the Guardian. By comparison, with attacks mounted against NUS by that newspaper, the editorial pronouncements of the Daily Telegraph seem like the vague intellectual ramblings of the apocryphal Hampstead Liberal.

Such was the level of interest the BBC and ITN turned up to film the debates. The conference took place on the same day as a planned National Front march through London; many delegates and observers were keen to join the counter-demonstration and left; for those that remained regular reports were relayed to them. At one stage, a blood-stained delegate appeared in the hall while another brought news that the tactics he had seen used by the police were the worst he had ever seen. The debate centered on how far the policy should extend, with some delegates arguing that Conservative politicians should be included. Charles Clarke, then National Treasurer, defeated this move by arguing that what was needed was a precise policy that took an uncompromising stand against declared racists and fascists; Randall summed up the debate with a question:

To achieve this general freedom, it became necessary on many occasions to constrain some of the absolute freedoms of individuals. What was the greater freedom? An abstract notion of absolute freedom of speech, or a right to live in freedom from fear of persecution?

Meanwhile, in Red Lion Square, London – the day had ended in tragedy. Kevin Gately, a student at Warwick University, had been killed during the demonstration trying to prevent a National Front rally from taking place. NUS denounced the subsequent inquiry into the incident by Lord Scarman as a whitewash, and the net result was to stiffen the resolve of those who supported No Platform; it was seen as a crucial tool in the fight against racism and one’s position on the issue was, for some, a definitive guide to one’s anti-racist credentials.

The case was not helped by local activists ignoring NUS guidelines and seeking to include student societies in the policy: Conservative and Jewish groups in particular. During her time as NUS President, Sue Slipman (1977 – 1978) successfully argued for a change in emphasis from no platform to no invitation, where speakers weren’t barred, they just wouldn’t be asked to speak.

The change won a number of plaudits from the press but did not last – the position was reversed the following year as Labour students tried to create further political distance between themselves and the rest of the Broad Left, and so championed the No Platform cause in what then NUS President Trevor Phillips saw as a “grossly opportunistic” position.

The same conference also saw Conservative Keith Joseph spat at and jostled when he sought to observe a debate, an act that did little to build bridges with the future Secretary of State for Education. Attacks on the policy were coming at the same time as government legislation to restrict students’ union funding as well as backbench activity that sought to abolish automatic membership. Conservative Students eagerly highlighted instances of what they saw as political bias or intolerance. If the left were keen to broaden the scope of the policy, the Conservatives were just as keen to misrepresent it.

Visits made by MPs to colleges that ended in disruption were seen as evidence of the policy in practice despite the fact that they had been invited and scheduled to speak. When Leon Brittan visited Manchester in 1985, the students’ union did all it could to ensure the meeting went ahead. John Carlisle MP, an apologist for the apartheid regime in South Africa, visited various campuses, prompting NUS President Phil Woolas to claim that he and others were deliberately trying to “provoke incidents”.

Demonstrations and boycotts resulted in negative headlines for NUS and students’ unions and further demands for action in the press. The theme was picked up in 1985 with the publication of the Government green paper The Development of Higher Education into the 1990s. Amongst other issues, freedom of speech was highlighted, along with an indication that if institutions took no action legislation would follow.

In response, the forerunners to Universities UK, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom (CVCP) and the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics (CDP) produced codes of practice that indicated that lawful freedom of speech should be upheld. This was not enough for Fred Silvester, Member of Parliament for Manchester Withington, who in February 1986 moved a Private Member’s Bill on Freedom of Speech. The codes, he said, “had too many doors through which the activist can bolt”, and whilst his Bill was not taken, the issue was taken up by Baroness Cox in the Lords who withdrew her amendment having received assurance by Government whips that the issue would be addressed in the final text that went to the Commons.

The Government amendment caused a furore and, following strong pressure in the Lords, was withdrawn and a revised amendment was devised with the CVCP. NUS argued that their No Platform policy was complementary and supportive of the Public Order Act of 1936 which made it an offence to use abusive and threatening language or stir feelings of racial hatred, but the Government were in no mood to listen. At the final stage of the Bill, John Carlisle spoke in support:

It is a message to the vice-chancellors that they must put their house in order . . . it is a message to the students and students’ union. The House and British tax-payer will not tolerate no-platform policies… it is a message for those extremists – who are intent on putting their views across and preventing others from putting forward views with which they disagree.

Speaking on Channel 4, Vicky Philips, NUS Vice President Welfare said:

There is a more sinister side to this legislation…. What it will do is force colleges and students’ unions to give money and facilities to the National Front and the British Movement, organisations who see colleges as fertile recruiting grounds for their abhorrent racist ideas. Organisations whose rationale is to incite racial hatred and to break the law. Students have opposed these groups in the past, not just on ideological grounds but because their existence threatens the safety and security of Black, Asian and Jewish students and their ability to study free from intimidation and physical violence. The Government should legislate to protect the ethnic groups in our society and not give facilities to the organisations which threaten and attack them.

The onus was now on institutions to draw up codes of conduct in the knowledge that there would be penalties if a college did not see that the code was upheld. John Carlisle was eventually advised by his doctor to stop visiting college campuses, and within weeks, Bristol Conservatives were reported to be thinking of inviting a speaker from the National Front to test the effectiveness of the new law. The effect of the legislation in the Education (No 2) Act was, as NUS had predicted, to create a greater degree of caution amongst university and college authorities.

Since the 1980s, additional groups have become the focus of no platform. Led by the Union of Jewish students, successive NUS Conferences in the 90s recognised an anti-semitic thread to some campus activity, and groups such as Al-Muhajiroun, Hizb-ut-Tahrir and (more controversially) the Muslim Public Affairs Committee came to sit alongside the BNP and EDL on NUS’ lists. This activity then resulted in No Platform being converted from a policy to a constitutional provision within NUS at an extraordinary conference in Leicester in December 2007, where free speech activists from UEA that had won an anti-No Platform referendum in Norwich (and were closely linked to the Revolutionary Communist Party) lost against a leadership determined to give permanence to the position.

The package was further refined in 2010 when Conference resolved that no platform was a “blunt tool” for making decisions about speakers, resolving to develop guidelines that would help newly registered students’ union charities balance all speaker request risks on a ‘freedom to speak’ versus ‘freedom from harm’ basis- arguing that students’ unions had the right to set moral standards for speech that went beyond the law. These widely adopted guidelines went on to be endorsed by Conservative ministers in both HE and FE- a sharp turnaround from the position they had held in the 80s.

Students’ unions had frequently been vilified in the media for upholding No Platform policies that sought to protect minorities, yet new anti-terror legislation meant the Government and some sections of the press were travelling the same road. Those apparent double standards have been played out most recently in the Daily Mail and The Telegraph – both papers simultaneously condemning parts of NUS and students’ unions for hosting speakers from controversial human rights group Cage, whilst attacking the partial rejection by NUS officers of feminists Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer. And most recently, gay rights activist Peter Tatchell, on the basis of perceived transphobia in the wider context of a growing student Trans movement and a growing student left.

NUS Conference 2015 had passed a resolution that contained a short line in support of working with Cage which the leadership almost immediately sought to distance itself from. In the case of Bindel, Greer and Tatchell; whilst none had been formally no-platformed by NUS as a whole, each had been subject to something similar in tone by activists or individual NUS officers: enough certainly for the press to conflate and draw conclusions about a generation and its attitudes. 

These have come in a slipstream of debate focussed on NUS’ Liberation Campaigns, where shades of No Platform have been attempted in recent years on George Galloway for comments about sexual assault, a Socialist Workers Party collapsing under the weight of rape allegations and comedians like Dapper Laughs, each recognising the oppression faced by women in the face of rape culture on campuses and in wider society.

With concerns about campus sexual assault and trigger warnings all in the mix, it is easy for student campaigners to both feel vilified and under siege from the torrent of press and social media abuse that adopts a particularly unpleasant and unforgiving tone to attack speech restrictions in the name of safety. 

The perceived extension of the principle of No Platform – from classic fascists to racists and fascists, and on to rape deniers and transphobes has followed a similar path. Previous generations of student leaders – now commentators and politicians – remember the battles they fought in their youth and are nervous about further extending the line between freedom of speech and freedom from harm.

The reality is that the student movement continues to formally “ban” almost no-one, and in the most recent example, it was Peter Tatchell that kept his platform when an NUS officer declined an invitation to speak alongside him.

Right now the repeated attacks on students’ unions and NUS and their efforts to draw an appropriate line between competing types of freedom feel intense and dramatic, but like so many of the battles of the past, the press will at some stage move on to a fresh way to be confused and disgusted by young people in general and students in particular.

For policy wonks, the most interesting question will be whether legislation in higher education will ever get tested or even updated. At the moment, we seem trapped between the freedom that the 1986 Act suggests, and the restrictions brought in by last year’s counter-terrorism legislation.

The story of No Platform suggests that away from the headlines, the academy and the students in it are perfectly capable of considering the issues and drawing the appropriate lines themselves if only they could be left to do so.

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