Another week, another contrived controversy about censorious students. The latest threat to free speech is apparently the fact that the Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens has had his event delayed at the University of Portsmouth Students’ Union. 

According to the students’ union, their members expressed concerns about inviting Hitchens during LGBT History Month, given his stated views on LGBT+ rights. Therefore, the decision was made to delay the event until after this month.

Following the announcement, Hitchens took to Twitter to denounce the students’ union as “thought police” and described it as the end of English freedom. This sort of hyperbole helps no one and certainly makes me question who the so-called “special snowflakes” are in this situation. 

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LGBT+ students who would rather not have a known opponent of LGBT+ rights on their campus during a month dedicated to their history, or the Mail on Sunday columnist with a huge platform throwing all his toys out the pram. 

This situation reflects the current media obsession with the alleged epidemic of “no platforming”. Once again, it’s worth noting that the NUS – the special snowflake headquarters of student politics – only has six or seven groups on its no platforming list. All of them are fascist, racist and/or antisemitic organisations. Given Jewish students in the West Midlands are menaced by the neo-Nazi group National Action to the extent that some need armed escorts, it’s sensible that that we recognise that hate speech isn’t free speech. 

Beyond that, many widely reported incidences of no platforming were nothing of the sort. In the past, when we have declined an invitation to speak, claims are always exaggerated. The protests against trans-exclusionary feminists, such as Germaine Greer, were often more to raise awareness of transphobic public statements rather than to storm the lecture theatre and drag them off campus. This is clearly a misrepresentation. 

What I see – rather than a bunch of oversensitive students – are oversensitive public figures with an entitlement to a platform. They often can’t comprehend why the most socially liberal generation in British history may not be interested in hearing conservative views; instead wanting to listen to and engage with academics and writers at the cutting edge of discussion on campus.  

The fact that decolonisation campaigns, trans-feminist events and anti-Prevent events are the most undermined in the mainstream press doesn’t seem to be relevant in the free speech brigade. I’m much more sympathetic to Palestine solidarity activists having their events shut down, Islamic Societies under surveillance and feminists who want anti-abortion groups off campus than I am to writers and public figures with books, interviews and articles (i.e. a platform) who have one of their events challenged. 

The current narrative over students being special snowflakes appeared after increased access to universities in the UK and US, especially following desegregation, challenging sexism and so on – this makes me very uneasy. There’s very much a sense of “we want students to challenge ideas, but not those ideas.” Isn’t that exactly what figures like Hitchens fear so much?

Eden Ladley is an NUS LGBT+ Officer


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