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Academic suggests no platforming ‘words or ideas’, not speakers

Written by: Ellie Bothwell
Published on: 23 Mar 2021

A maintenance worker removes posters depicting the Nike logo and reading ‘Tory just do whatever you want’ from a wall in Shoreditch, East London, on May 30, 2020, England.

Source: Getty

Universities must treat free speech as a process of negotiation rather than an absolute right, according to a scholar who said that it should be possible to “no platform a word or an idea” instead of a person in certain contexts.

Alison Scott-Baumann, professor of society and belief in the Centre of Islamic Studies at SOAS University of London, criticised the UK government’s proposals to “strengthen” campus free speech as “selectively libertarian”, but said that it would be dangerous for academics to either ignore or completely fight claims of free speech issues.

While the extent of the issue on campuses was much smaller than that being presented by the government and some public figures, she said that narratives of moral panic had pushed students towards extreme approaches to free speech – “either we can say what we like, or we have to no platform this person” – and in turn this pushed them to be risk-averse when organising events, weakening universities’ ability to be spaces of rigorous debate about difficult issues.

Professor Scott-Baumann said that institutions had to take concrete steps to teach students how to talk to and listen to people with whom they strongly disagree.

In the book, Freedom of Speech in Universities: Islam, Charities and Counter-terrorism, which was published last month, Professor Scott-Baumann and Simon Perfect, a researcher at SOAS, advocate a “fourfold model for handling freedom of speech”, which includes four levels of freedom: libertarian, liberal, guarded liberal and no platforming. It recommends that universities pursue the liberal approach as a default position, but that students or academics could deviate from this “when particular contexts demand it”.

Professor Scott-Baumann said that “free speech is considered a right but actually it doesn’t really work that way” in a civilised society.

“What happens now is it is an on/off switch. You say, we’re either going to have this person [speak] or we’re not going to have this person. There’s no negotiation,” she said.

However, “it has to be a negotiated right, which is that I agree to not cause you offence if you agree to not cause me offence. There has to be a reciprocity.”

She added that using the fourfold model, students could, for example, decide to invite a speaker with “very traditional, perhaps Islamic fundamentalist views if [the speaker] agrees to adopt a guarded liberal approach”.

“A guarded liberal approach would mean that they would speak about moderate belief systems that they knew to be acceptable to the majority and then maybe in the questions afterwards they might go a little bit further if the audience have the appetite for it,” she said.

“Obviously the speaker would have to cooperate and some speakers would say, ‘I’m not going to be constrained,’ which is a problem. Then you’d have to introduce other measures – you’d have to make sure that you have a chair or someone on a panel who has a very different viewpoint from the problematic speaker.”

In another example, she said that someone concerned about the Arab-Israeli conflict could be invited to speak “but on a slightly different topic”.

“That’s been done at SOAS – come and talk about your family’s history in the diaspora Jewish population of Europe rather than come and talk about Zionism,” she said.

“What we’re suggesting really is that it’s possible to no platform a word or an idea and still go ahead with the speaker.”