Inviting Marine Le Pen to speak at the Oxford Union in 2015, says Timothy Garton Ash, was “exactly the right thing to do".
“She is probably the key figure making the running in French politics and we have to see who she is and what she’s on about. We had a big protest outside, which is just fine – that’s part of the great tradition of free speech in universities – and she was very robustly challenged inside the debating chamber.
"Le Pen is more likely to get challenged here than at her rallies in France…I think we should also ask Donald Trump and indeed people from the British National Party too – you deal with them by robust challenge.”
Now Isaiah Berlin professorial fellow at St Antony’s College in Oxford, Professor Garton Ash was speaking to Times Higher Education about some of the themes of his recent book, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World.
Although this ranges widely across issues of privacy, secrecy, religion and diversity, it also has strong implications for universities – caught in Britain, as he sees it, between “the government with its counter-terrorist legislation trying to impose a Prevent duty” and “pressure from below, from students”.
Although his general principle is that “universities should be the places of maximum possible free speech”, he also believes that “we must listen carefully and think about each separate case”.
"I don’t think Rhodes Must Fall was a blow against free speech – in many ways it was a blow for free speech, because it opened up a whole discussion about colonialism, the curriculum at Oxford, diversity of faculty and so on.”
On the other hand, universities should resist “no-platforming” when it amounts to “one group of students saying that another group of students may not hear a speaker they want to hear”.
In a chapter on “knowledge”, Professor Garton Ash suggests that even arguments that are widely considered offensive may “contain grains of truth that advance knowledge” and that “the kinds of people who make bold, original guesses at the frontiers of science may not always be the careful, sensitive, emotionally intelligent types we need in intercommunity relations”.
Asked to amplify on this, he points to the row over comments made by Nobel laureate Sir Tim Hunt and the dangers of “relaps[ing] too easily into a sort of witch-hunt mode, often on the basis of one or two sentences someone has said”.
More generally, he argues that “science has to go in what may be uncomfortable directions” and that “there’s a definite place for eccentricity in universities, because originality often comes with a degree of eccentricity”.
In parallel with his research for the book, which itself comes in an electronic “post-Gutenberg” version with a range of links still unusual in e-books, Professor Garton Ash has been developing the Free Speech Debate website.
This is produced in collaboration with a team of mostly Oxford postgraduates, who between them have translated the interviews, commentary and analysis from around the world into 13 different languages (and so made them accessible to about two-thirds of all internet users).
Timothy Garton Ash’s Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World was recently published by Atlantic Books.