Student Rights at Exeter Debating Society

Last Friday, Student Rights National Organiser Gray Sergeant spoke at the University of Exeter Debating Society on the motion ‘This House Supports No Platform Policies at University’. Here he outlines his opinion on the topic.

On being invited to attend this debate, I spoke for the motion despite my increasing frustration with overzealous student unions banning speakers they disagree with.

In fact, some students at the event who follow the work of Student Rights were surprised that I was speaking in favour of banning speakers.

Student Rights has criticised the use of ‘safe space’ policies to shutdown debate when student unions have tried barring speakers like Germaine Greer and Maryam Namazie.

We rarely call for speakers to banned, but while I’m not enthusiastic about the idea, I do think there is a case to be made for denying someone a platform to speak on campus.

However, this is not because I subscribe to the view that campuses must be free from offence or anything else that might ‘trigger’ a student.

Nobody has the right not to be offended and students should be able to listen to views they disagree with, not be wrapped up in cotton wool.

Despite this, to put it simply, fascist groups shouldn’t be able to operate on campuses unchallenged; closed off from scrutiny and free to recruit students at universities.

Banning should be the last resort, but groups like the British Nationalist Party (BNP) and Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), whose policies are directly and purposefully discriminatory, do not simply offend – they seek to incite hatred and discrimination against minorities.

Universities and student unions have a duty of care to their students, and allowing speakers from these groups can only increase the risk of radicalisation or the breakdown of campus cohesion.

It’s very easy to say students should challenge these groups’ narratives, and I agree that exposing their ideology, ridiculing it, presenting logical arguments and better ideas is the best way to defeat extremists.

When Nick Griffin spoke at the Oxford Union he was heckled and the BNP’s policies were scrutinised. While that event might have given him some legitimacy, at least he was being challenged.

But imagine if BNP members were given platforms in universities where there were no other panellists present to disagree with them, and where robust Q&A sessions weren’t encouraged.

Imagine if students who wanted to challenge their extreme narrative were denied access to the event, or shouted down by those present.

The situation outlined above is exactly what has happened in the past with HT, which the government claims has a record of “target[ing] specific universities and colleges…with the objective of radicalising and recruiting students”.

In these instances, where extremists from groups like HT or the BNP will face no challenge, I feel that these individuals and groups should be prevented from appearing on campus.

Not surprisingly, members of the Debating Society at the University of Exeter were reluctant to support banning people, and in many ways it was reassuring to see so many students committed to free speech.

In fact, at the beginning of the debate not a single person supported the motion, but by the end of the event our side had achieved a reasonable swing, with a number of students supporting bans on speakers in the most serious circumstances.

Speaking to students afterwards, it was clear that there was a deep distrust of student unions and their ability to use their capability to ‘no platform’ individuals without abusing this power.

While they understood the argument that universities should be able to stop fascists operating unchallenged on campuses, many feared a minority of students would use these powers to stop speakers who they disagreed with coming onto campus.

Overall, it was good to see students committed to upholding freedom of speech, with the debate about who and who shouldn’t be barred from campus an important issue that more students should be engaging with.

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