Free speech is under attack in UK universities

Bad ideas are best and most effectively defeated by good ideas

By Peter Tatchell

The intolerant student Left has even turned on me – a lifelong civil rights campaigner Daily Telegraph – London, UK – 16 February 2016

I support feminism and trans rights. I also support free speech and protests against misogyny, racism and transphobia. I oppose all prejudice and discrimination. Bad ideas are best and most effectively defeated by good ideas, rather than by bans and censorship – except when people endorse violence against others. That is my red line.

Free speech and enlightenment values are under attack in our universities. In the worthy name of defending the weak and marginalised, many student activists are now adopting the unworthy tactic of seeking to close down open debate. They want to censor people they disagree with. I am their latest victim.

Student leader Fran Cowling has denounced me as racist and transphobic, even though I’ve supported every anti-racist and pro-transgender campaign during my 49 years of human rights work.

This is not quite the Star Chamber but it is the same intolerant mentality.

Fran is the LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Officer of the National Union of Students (NUS). She refused to speak at a LGBT event at Canterbury Christ Church University last night unless I was dropped from the line-up.

This is a variation of the NUS ‘no-platform’ policy; only instead of blocking me from speaking Fran is refusing to share a platform with me.

She has every right to refuse to speak alongside me but not to make false McCarthyite-style smears. When asked to provide evidence of my supposed racism and transphobia, she was not willing to do so. There is none.

Since 26 January, I four times politely emailed Fran and other NUS LGBT+ officials asking them to substantiate the allegations against me. Playing the victim card, her allies now denounce these mild, courteous emails as “harassment.”

Fran failed to reply. After making outrageous, libellous allegations, she provided no evidence of my transphobia and racism. Then she blocked me online; spurning all my attempts to resolve this matter amicably and privately. It is only then that I went public.

In retaliation, some NUS activists are resorting to a dirty tricks campaign, trying to portray her as the victim of my ‘abusive behaviour.’ They claim I outed Fran. Not true. She outed herself when she accepted the public position of NUS LGBT+ Officer. Since then, she has courted the national media and been quoted as a LGBT spokesperson.

This sorry, sad saga is symptomatic of the decline of free and open debate on some university campuses. There is a witch-hunting, accusatory atmosphere. Allegations are made without evidence to back them – or worse, they are made citing false, trumped-up evidence, as in my case.

Fran claimed in an email to the university that she was speaking for the NUS and its policies; suggesting that she was acting on behalf the NUS “membership” who “believe” me to be racist and transphobic. I challenged the NUS over when and where this decision was taken by the membership and why I was not allowed to defend myself before the vote. They conceded that the membership had never decided against me.

In another email to the LGBT event organiser, Fran made the allegation that she has personally witnessed me using racist language. Untrue. I challenged Fran to produce evidence for this claim. She has failed to produce it – because the accusation is baseless.

Fran also said that I signed a letter to The Observer last year supporting the right of feminists to be “openly transphobic” and to “incite violence” against trans people. The letter did not say this. Written in support of free speech, it did not express any anti-trans views or condone anti-trans violence. For decades, I have opposed feminists such as Germaine Greer who reject and disparage trans people and their human rights.

Disappointingly, Fran and the entire NUS leadership have turned down media requests to be interviewed and to debate the issues involved. It looks and feels cowardly. When challenged, they run, hide and denounce from the ‘safe space’ of their laptops. This is the antithesis of the free and open inquiry that is supposed to be the hallmark of university learning and culture.

I don’t see the NUS as the enemy. I support their efforts to defend student rights and back their opposition to tuition fees and education cuts. I just disagree with the way some of them choose to deal with other people’s opinions.

Anyone who doesn’t toe the line politically, risks being denounced, even over the tiniest disagreement. The race to be more left and politically correct than others is resulting in an intimidating, excluding atmosphere on campuses. Universal human rights and enlightenment values – including John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty – are often shamefully rubbished as the ideas of Western imperialist white privilege.

I am all in favour of protesting against real racists and transphobes. Even then, the most effective way to do this is by exposing and countering their bigoted ideas rather than by censoring and banning them. I’ve often debated religious fundamentalists and homophobes. They’ve lost the argument; leaving them weakened and discredited.

Bad ideas are best and most effectively defeated by good ideas. NUS, please take note.