Where are all the Zoom free speech stories?

You'd think the explosion of societies running virtual "invited speaker" events would have given the usual sources any number of "no platform" stories to run with. Where are they?

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

This is something of a golden era for lectures, panel discussions, and guest speakers. Primarily because there’s not much else to do, and the barrier to securing a top notch guest is currently so low. There’s no need to find a spot in a crammed diary, arrange travel and accommodation, arrange security and moderation – any talking head with broadband and a spare half-hour can speak at pretty much any university event.

Given this, you would expect student societies in particular to be putting on some must-see stuff – and with this comes the likelihood of an overactive executive banning certain speakers for fear of offending the minority of the week – at least, in the foetid imaginations of the Spiked team.

One of the advantages of working on the Wonkhe Daily is that between us we read pretty much every single thing that has been published in the national press about universities. Over a term, that’s a lot of stories. And it may just be my elderly brain, but I can’t recall one single old fashioned “no platform” story since the end of the summer.

We’ve had the tail end of the statues discourse, and a couple of name change stories (as an alumnus I’m squarely behind the campaign to re-name De Montfort University, a historic name that goes back as far as 1992). But nothing on banned speakers – decrying their muted voices on the opinion pages of The Times, the Telegraph, the Mail, and (if they’ve really been naughty) UnHerd. Why might this be?

  • Controversial speakers are generally booked with at least one eye on the need to “own the libs” – which is why the problem primarily affects famed contrarians. Is having, say, Jordan Peterson or Laurence Fox on Microsoft Teams less of a coup for the “free speech society”?
  • Are students and their elected leaders more concerned with supporting thousands of students disadvantaged during a global pandemic than trying to puzzle out why someone has booked Anne Widdecome again?
  • Have we, as a culture, in this year of Black Lives Matter and an attempted US coup, finally realised that some people just don’t have anything worthwhile to contribute to the national debate?

All plausible, but I think I’m going to go with the null hypothesis. This was always a tiny problem, of interest only to a tiny fringe. In the main nobody really cares who is booked to speak on or around campus unless they are actually breaking the law (in the Prevent sense) or if public safety becomes difficult to guarantee. The absence of space to protest and space to antagonise, with everyone walled off in their own Zoom room, means that this university news perennial has just failed to happen.

Has there been any stories that I’ve missed? Please do let me know. But otherwise the governments hotly rumoured legislation on the matter is looking – alongside the general retreat from the culture war – a little bit pointless.

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