Free Speech On Campus: Does ‘No-Platforming’ Chill Freedom Of Expression?

By Saxon Norgard, Associate Editor 7 Aug 2019

‘No-platforming’ has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years, but what actually is it and does it have anything to do with human rights?

No-Platforming And The National Union of Students

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The term “no-platforming” is typically used to describe the practice of refusing groups or individuals, considered to hold hateful or otherwise unacceptable views, from contributing to a public debate or meeting.

In the UK, no-platforming can be traced at least as far back as 1974 when the National Union of Students (NUS) introduced its No Platform Policy. Its objective was to prevent individuals or groups with racist or fascist views from speaking at NUS events. It describes its policy as “very narrow” and today only applies to six designated organisations including the Muslim Public Affairs Committee and the English Defence League.

The practice appears to have since become more widespread, with numerous reports of universities across the UK cancelling speakers – often accused of harbouring far-right views – following protests from students. Many cases of no-platforming have been highly publicised, creating a broader cultural debate about free speech.

So, What’s It Got To Do With Free Speech?

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The right to freedom of expression is guaranteed by Article 10 of the Human Rights Convention, which protects, among other things, our “freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority“. This is a defensive right, which prohibits the government from interfering with our ability to express ourselves freely.

Article 10 does not give us a positive right to have a platform. We cannot demand that we be allowed to speak in Parliament, nor can we demand that the Number 10 Twitter account retweet something we have posted. The right is defensive, meaning that it protects us from attempts by the government to suppress or control our speech.

However, Article 10 is also a qualified right. This means that authorities may be legally permitted to take proportionate measures to restrict the right to freedom of expression if it can be deemed necessary to prevent crime and disorder and protect health and morals.

The Convention also cites protecting the rights and reputations of other people; preventing the disclosure of confidential information; guaranteeing the impartiality of the judicial process and national security as reasons for which government may restrict freedom of expression. But they must prove any action taken is lawful, necessary and proportionate

For example, an authority may be permitted to restrict the right to expression of those encouraging hatred against people on protected characteristics such as their race, religion or sexual orientation. This type of speech would likely undermine a number of the rights of people it is aimed at and could also constitute a criminal offence.

A number of speech acts in the UK are criminalised under a patchwork legislation.

Human rights charity Liberty has called for the efficacy and impact of this legislation to be reviewed, expressing concerns that its “ad hoc” and “piecemeal” nature could have a chilling effect on legitimate debate and peaceful protest.

It is important to note that the duty to uphold the right to freedom of expression falls on ‘public authorities’. The NUS and all universities in the UK are private institutions. Therefore, they are under no legal obligation to uphold freedom of speech. In a strict legal sense, therefore, no-platforming is not covered by the Human Rights Convention.

What About The Education Act?

Universities and Higher Education Premises are also subject to what is known as a section 43 duty under the Education Act 1986. This means they must take “reasonably practicable” steps to ensure freedom of speech within the law for their members, students, employees and visiting speakers.

The Act includes making sure, as far as possible, that no individual or group is stopped from using the premises for any reason connected with an individual’s beliefs or views, or the policy or objectives of the group.

Again, this does not mean that speakers have the right to be invited to speak. But anyone who is invited should not be prevented from doing so unless they are unlikely to express unlawful speech or their attendance would mean the organisation will breach other legal obligations.

According to Equalities and Human Rights Commission guidance, student unions, such as the National Union of Students, are exempt from this duty, but it can apply to their premises.

Free Speech Is More Than Just A Legal Concept

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The debate on no-platforming is a heated one which goes beyond the legal realm and into the arena of culture.

Those who criticise no-platforming on university campuses point out that universities are supposed to be forums of education, where ideas are challenged and debated rather than silenced.

Whereas, those who advocate for no-platforming argue that it protects the vulnerable from being radicalised by hateful ideas.

Free speech is something which all of us, including private institutions, should endeavour to uphold in a democratic society.

Featured image: Unsplash.com

About The Author

Saxon Norgard Associate Editor

Saxon is one of RightsInfo's volunteer Site Editors and a future trainee solicitor in London. Originally hailing from Australia, his interests lie in family law, international affairs and human rights.

Saxon is one of RightsInfo's volunteer Site Editors and a future trainee solicitor in London. Originally hailing from Australia, his interests lie in family law, international affairs and human rights.