Many years ago, now I was elected as the University of Kent students’ union Anti-Racism Officer and so I found myself handling considerations about whether or not the students’ union should reintroduce a “No Platform” policy; the previous one having lapsed in earlier years (in part, it has to be said, because one those proposing its renewal was frankly not trusted by some groups on campus). The issue was on the ascendancy in wider student politics at the time – during that year there was a general election with the BNP vote rising and it was also in that year that the National Union of Students added Al-Muhajiroun to the list of organisations banned nationally.
(This is as good a place as any to tackle the first big misconception and problem. Unless things have changed in recent years, the NUS policy is not binding on individual affiliate students’ unions who are free to adopt their own policies. However, NUS has long encouraged individual affiliates to adopt a No Platform policy as well. Many have simply reproduced the text and some even automatically use the banned groups list as defined by the NUS.)
It rapidly became clear that the standard No Platform policy within the student movement is a complicated affair that years of poor institutional memory and localised practice have turned into a difficult to understand, explain and defend mess. This stems from it being an awkward hybrid of a public order measure, a more general welfare measure and gets into a political measure. The aims can be quite distinct and so mixing them all together results in confusion and anger over just what the policy was or is aiming at.
Thus, what was originally intended as a measure against violence on campus by not allowing groups with violent track records to rally on students’ union owned or booked facilities has steadily turned into a more political weapon to also deny a platform or refuse to share one with people who make entirely peaceful expressions of opinions deemed racist and fascist – with a very unclear process for determining exactly how that deeming is carried out objectively. It’s made even worse by meeting procedures that often require deeply complicated philosophical questions to be expressed in a speech just a minute or two long. The result is the policy gets poorly explained and misunderstood, both by its detractors but also by those who find themselves having to operate it.
Now other organisations have No Platform policies as well. But a combination of the organisation’s overall scope and a much stronger historical understanding of the policy’s purpose means that it is much clearer what it’s for, what it’s aiming to do and how to explain it clearly. However, students’ unions are very heterogenous bodies with numerous societies and media forms, with the result that there’s far more potential for issues to arise. So it gets over used and at times abused.
Worse still it encourages a more general approach to trying to fight ideas through bans.
And that’s before we even consider the potential legal mess that can arise out of this, with those keenest often not the ones legally responsible.
A return to basics of stating clearly that an organisation will not host particular organisations, will not allow them to use media outlets and will not have its office holders appear in official capacity at events with them (e.g. appearing on panels or in debates) should be a priority. Trying to police individuals’ speech is a route doomed to failure. Where necessary, there are laws in place for that.