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Fascists Have a Right to Free Speech?

The Oxford Union will go ahead with its free speech debate tonight, Monday 26 November, headlined by Nick Griffin, leader of the neo-Nazi British National Party, and Holocaust revisionist historian, David Irving. The Oxford Union President, Luke Tryl, had been … Read More

By / November 27, 2007

The Oxford Union will go ahead with its free speech debate tonight, Monday 26 November, headlined by Nick Griffin, leader of the neo-Nazi British National Party, and Holocaust revisionist historian, David Irving. The Oxford Union President, Luke Tryl, had been deluged with protests from MPs and from Jewish, black, gay, and anti-fascist organisations. They wanted the invitations to Griffin and Irving withdrawn; arguing against giving a platform to speakers who they accuse of being fascists or apologists for fascism. The fact that all these groups want the invitations withdrawn is not, in itself, sufficient reason to do so. There needs to be some compelling evidence as to why the two speakers should not be granted a forum. A vote by members of the Oxford Union last Friday, went 1,062 in favour of proceeding with Griffin and Irving as guest speakers, and 640 against. The decision by the Oxford Union to give a platform to Griffin and Irving raises a number of tricky, conflicting ethical dilemmas. The issue is not clear-cut either way. I say this as someone who was branded a communist and nearly sacked from my job for opposing the US war against Vietnam in the McCarthyite witch-hunting atmosphere of 1960s Australia. I am instinctively pro-free speech and against bans and censorship, but I also believe in defending human rights and the right of minority communities to be spared prejudice and intimidation. How do we square these two competing, worthy ideals? Nick Griffin is the leader of a far right party, the BNP, which has a history of promoting racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism and prejudice against Muslims – and of using intimidation and violence. Griffin has a conviction for inciting racial hatred. Other members of the BNP have criminal convictions for violence and for racist attacks. David Irving was branded by a British judge in 2006 as “a racist, an anti-Semite and an active Holocaust denier.” His ideas are used by neo-Nazis to promote and justify their anti-Jewish agenda; stirring hatred against Jewish people.
The issue basically comes down to this question: Are fascists entitled to free speech? Or are some people so threatening and dangerous – especially to minority race, sexuality and faith communities – that it is legitimate to limit their freedom of expression? This is not a matter of academic debate. There is considerable evidence that whenever the BNP campaigns in local communities, there is a corresponding rise in racial abuse and violence. Don’t we have a duty to do everything in our power to limit the impact of fascist ideas and campaigns, in order to minimise such attacks? Moreover, some people would argue: why should fascists be given free speech when they would, if given half a chance, deny free speech to others? There should be an intolerance of intolerance, they say. By granting liberty to those who would destroy liberty, surely we are accomplices to liberty’s destruction? Many people hold the view that Nick Griffin and David Irving are either fascists or fascist sympathisers and apologists. Neo-Nazis is a term often used to describe them. Even those who demur from such a description cannot dispute that they give comfort to fascists and that their ideas are used by fascists to promote an anti-human rights and anti-free speech agenda which, in some cases, results in the abuse of racial, sexual and religious minorities. Anti-fascists say Irving and Griffin should be denied public platforms in order to protect vulnerable minority communities and for the sake of preserving social cohesion and solidarity. In other words, they argue that achieving a greater social good over-rides all other considerations. Black, gay, Jewish and Muslim people are the frequent victims of fascist bigotry, harassment and, sometimes, actual violence assault. I agree that these victims should be spared the intimidation that is often engendered by fascist ideas and campaigns. Achieving a caring, compassionate society may sometimes require restrictions on the promotion of hate and discrimination. Free speech is the ideal. But it is not absolute. There may be a small number circumstances where free speech can be legitimately limited to protect individuals and communities. We already accept the notion that free speech does not include the right to falsely libel a person as a paedophile, terrorist or a fraudster. Nor does the law allow people to incite violence or murder. Restricting free speech may be wrong and undesirable, but it is sometimes the lesser of two evils. Let’s go back in history. It is possible that if there had been no free speech for Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany during the early 1920s – if their meetings and marches had been stopped – they may not have grown in strength and influence. Denying them an opportunity to propagandise, gain respectability and enter the political mainstream might have thwarted their rise to power. This may have prevented the Nazis from assuming the government of Germany. Without Hitler in power, the Holocaust and World War Two may not have happened. Tens of millions of lives may have been saved if the free speech of Nazis had been suppressed early on. This is, of course, historical speculation. We don’t know for sure. But it is plausible that “no platform” for Nazis in the 1920s could have prevented the horrors the Nazis later perpetrated. On these grounds, I would argue that it would have been justified to deny the Nazi Party freedom of speech. Critics of this view counter with the argument that the best way to defeat the far right is by challenging and debunking their ideas through education and by countering its ideas on the doorsteps. Fascist ideology doesn’t stack up and can be demolished by rational, informed argument. Suppression of their right to free speech won’t make their ideas go away. They will fester underground. Open scrutiny and critique of fascist policies is the most effective way to erode public support and sympathy. While I concur with this analysis and prescription, I am not sure that in practice it is sufficient to thwart the rise of fascism. Information and debate does not seem to have blocked the emergence of neo-fascist movements in France, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland. Here in Britain, it seems to have had only limited success in halting the forward march of the BNP. Returning to the issue of tonight’s Oxford Union debate: Under the laws that exist in this country, Nick Griffin and David Irving have free speech. They enjoy the freedom to espouse their views at any public meeting they wish to organise, or in any leaflet they wish to print. They are not being censored or banned. An invitation to speak at the Oxford Union is a privilege not a right. While I don’t believe there should a blanket ban on these two men expressing their point of view, I also don’t believe they should be handed a megaphone to propagandise their anti-humanitarian opinions. I object to the Oxford Union going out of its way to promote Griffin and Irving. Despite having a limited number of debates and speaker slots, it has decided to prefer these two purveyors of prejudice.
Support for free speech does not oblige the Oxford Union to reward these men with a prestigious public platform, which will give them an air of respectability, raise their public profile and allow them to espouse their intolerant views. It is helping them propagate their bigotry. Not offering hate-mongers a platform is not the same as banning them. Hundreds of topical public speakers and first-rate debaters never get invited to address the Oxford Union. They are not being censored. I don’t feel comfortable arguing against free speech. But in this case, on balance, not giving a platform to Irving and Griffin is the lesser of two evils. Tonight’s debate will promote the fascist BNP. If it had a chance, the BNP would deny freedom of speech to others. The BNP is a threat to human rights. It should not be promoted. The Oxford Union is setting a precedent that will encourage and pressure other student debating societies, and other prestigious institutions, to also prove their free speech credentials by hosting fascist speakers. The invitations to Griffin and Irving should have been withdrawn by the Oxford Union and alternative non-bigoted speakers invited to discuss what limitations, if any, should be placed on freedom of expression. To debate free speech does not require the personal contributions of Griffin and Irving. Anti-fascists like the libertarian columnist Brendan O’Neill can eloquently put the case for absolute free speech, including the right of the BNP to freedom of expression. Indeed, the Oxford Union would be better advised to give a platform to genuine free speech martyrs from China, Iran, Uganda, Burma, Zimbabwe, Saudi Arabia and Russia. Free speech is an important human rights issue that should not be cheapened by the sensationalism of parading of pair of self-indulgent right-wing extremists in the chamber of the Oxford Union. For anyone interested in exploring these issues further: I recently hosted a half-hour internet TV debate, on 18 Doughty Street TV, pegged on the Oxford Union controversy. It is entitled: Do fascists have a right to free speech? The debate discusses the pros and cons of inviting Griffin and Irving. The interviewees are Luke Tryl, President of the Oxford Union, and Brendan O'Neill, Editor of Spiked. Weyman Bennett of Unite Against Fascism agreed to participate but he was unable to attend at the last minute, following an accident.

Watch the interview here.

[Cross-posted at Harry's Place]

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