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groups (including one named ‘Students Against Fascism’) had said they would obstruct the visit the invitation was withdrawn.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.