The great free speech dilemma

So here is the news today: Trinity College Dublin has announced that it will not allow the leader of the far-right British National Party, Nick Griffin, to visit the college to take part in a debate on immigration at the University Philosophical Society. The BNP leader had been invited to the debate, but after students groups (including one named ‘Students Against Fascism’) had said they would obstruct the visit the invitation was withdrawn. In a statement the College said:

‘The University Philosophical Society and Trinity College Dublin have decided to withdraw the invitation to Mr Nick Griffin, leader of the British National Party. Mr Griffin was invited by the Philosophical Society to participate in a debate on October 20th next. After careful consideration of the matter, involving a series of discussions between the Philosophical Society’s officers and the College and taking all safety considerations into account, the decision was taken today (October 14th). The College encourages balanced debate and freedom of speech at all times. It is a very important part of academic life, particularly among students and their societies. As part of the education of our students, the College also promotes the autonomy and self governance of student societies.  These are important principles observed by the College. Following careful review of operational and safety issues, the Philosophical Society and the College are now not satisfied that the general safety and well being of staff and students can be guaranteed. Access to the College will not be given to Mr Griffin or members of the BNP.’

So what should we make of this? Let me first stress that I consider Mr Griffin’s views, and for that matter his party, to be odious. The party appeals to the worst instincts of its potential voters, and its activities undermine social cohesion in parts of England. Thankfully it has not managed to gain much traction in Scotland.

But bad and all though it is, should we curtail freedom of speech for its leaders and members? I remember an incident while I was a student when the participation of a conservative politician in a debate was made impossible by a group of students shouting ‘No free speech for Fascists’. The politician in question was undoubtedly not progressive, but he was hardly a fascist, and in consequences it seemed to me that the protestors were potentially more dangerous than the person they were attacking. Indeed the same group threatened to obstruct a visit by the British Labour politician Denis Healey, arguing that he too was a ‘Fascist’.

Freedom of speech is arguably the most important civil right. Without it no democracy can survive. But it doesn’t really exist if it is conditional, and in the end we must argue that all people, including those with odious views, must be allowed to speak provided they do so within the law. Otherwise we may be defending something that is already lost.

I am not criticising Trinity College Dublin – the College had to take a decision based on the situation as they found it. But the fact that they were forced to do this is a matter of regret. What is more, Nick Griffin is not a persuasive speaker; he would easily have been shown in the debate to have no views worth admiring. The opportunity to showcase the superiority of the liberal democratic tradition was missed.

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8 Comments on “The great free speech dilemma”

  1. John Carter Says:

    I don’t think the Trinity authorities were denying Nick Griffin his freedom of speech. They were simply saying they didn’t want to invite him to speak there.

    • Pidge Says:


      That’s the big difference. I was heavily involved in the L&H in UCD, and there was always a temptation to invite along controversial speakers, mostly to show how “free speechy” we were and to stoke up some publicity. Luckily, we mostly resisted that in the years I was active.

      Few people argue that Nick Griffin shouldn’t have free speech, but there’s an important distinction between allowing free speech and offering the person a platform.

      Debating societies like to think themselves impartial, but – like anyone tasked with inviting speakers – they make subjective decisions about who would be a good, representative speaker all the time.

  2. Vincent Says:

    This is an error on the part of TCD. They should have put in place protection to the limits of their ability and then called in help from all like me who hold that free speech is the foundation element.
    When will people get it into their thick heads that Free Speech is not about Griffin, but themselves. #
    That it was one of the oldest universities in the world with an alumni list that would shame many only makes the narrow provincial cheap cavilling far worse. It seems they are too darn stupid to know exactly what they have done.
    If a fundamentalist university in outback Texas or a Madrasah in Arabia went about things like TCD, we would see this for what it is.

    • Al Says:

      Have to agree, but I am sure this came up on management by surprise after the announcement.
      It’s just a pity that we all have to worship the pagan god “health and safety”!

      • Vincent Says:

        If ever there was a definition of mission creep it’s H&S. What started down some widow-maker coalmine can now prevent any action.
        If that was the reasons though, why now get him and any entering the courts to sign a release. They have doors and gates after all. It was never as if the place was in fact open to the elements -like me-as it were.

  3. kevin denny Says:

    When I was an undergrad in UCD, about 1982, there was a big debate on monetarism with some relatively controversial speakers, “celebrity economists” we would call them now. Somehow I was on the door at Theatre L and I recall a plain-clothes (& probably armed) Guard announcing his presence to us: some visiting academic had been shot in TCD not long before (not fatally). Those were the days.
    I agree that its a shame that Griffin wasn;t let in so people could make their own minds up but universities tend to be risk averse when it comes to safety matters.

  4. I believe in freedom of speech and advocate it at every opportunity, but believe it is up to individual institutions to decide whether they want the debate to be held on their premises.

    I want to hear want radical or right/left – wing parties have to say and opposing their opportunity to speak is a dangerous political game to play – if they get into power, they’ll be morally justified to use similar means to silence views which do not match their own as well.

    I wouldn’t invite Nick Griffin though, I think he had his chance with the Britain public in the run-up to the last election and did nothing to inspire and did not make a clear practical case to the country for governing in any capacity. He didn’t have the financial structure to campaign at any reasonable level and suffered from a lack of clarity in his arguments. His own party have been trying to get rid of his and he has already had internal challenges to his position as leader. The party is apparently already is a dismal position financial, which could spell the end.

    But again, freedom of speech first.

  5. […] ago. He would no doubt have suffered the same fate at the Phil, had he been allowed to attend. As Ferdinand comments, Griffin “would easily have been shown in the debate to have no views worth admiring”; […]

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