Leader: Free speech vs a cheap victory

May 11, 2007

Another week, another furore about free speech on university campuses.

The news that Bath University undergraduate Danny Lake, the national organiser for the Young British National Party, has invited BNP leader Nick Griffin to speak on campus next week has been met with predictably impassioned protest.

While Bath argues that its commitment to free speech and academic freedom means it cannot deny a platform to any individual or organisation on the grounds of their "beliefs, policy or objectives", both the University and College Union and the National Union of Students have argued that this is not a matter of free speech but of the right of staff and students to be free from intimidation, or even violence.

The NUS says in a statement this week that with its "fascist" credentials, "clearly the BNP has no place on campus".

There are legitimate concerns. Some students will feel deeply uncomfortable, at best, at the presence of the BNP on campus. And some will lack faith in the protection offered by the law against inciting racial hatred, following Griffin's acquittal last year of committing the offence, despite his stated view that Islam is a "wicked, vicious faith" and that Muslims were turning Britain into a "multiracial hellhole".

The university must, of course, be conscious of its - untested - duties under the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000 to actively "promote racial harmony" on campus, and it must be rigorous in ensuring proper security for the event.

But suppressing debate is not the answer. The BNP thrives on its status as the oppressed and suppressed underdog, and no doubt Mr Griffin would make much of any suggestion that he had been censored by a university - the very bastion of free speech. His talk at Bath is to discuss last week's election results. Why shouldn't he be asked to explain why - despite fielding a record number of candidates (750) and despite the BNP's boast that it would more than double its tally of councillors from 49 to more than 100 - the party failed to make any significant inroads and saw its share of the vote recede in key target areas?

As Martin Hughes of Durham University once put it in a union debate: "You can't have freedom of speech for nice people and not for nasty people."

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