Friday 13 June 2008

A forward motion

'No Platform' debate at Sussex University, 1-2 May 2008

On the 1 and 2 May, students at the University of Sussex voted on the motion: ‘This Union should allow anyone to speak at the University of Sussex within the constraints of UK law’. The motion was defeated by 731 votes to 453, yet the debate that erupted bought home some truths about student attitudes to Free Speech, and student activism as a whole.

The University of Sussex was once thought a hotbed of student radicalism, a reputation the current Student Union strives to uphold. Annual General Meetings put a global moral issues before a minority of student voters, who then decide the political opinion of the entire Union. One particular decision made during the 1980s banned the provision of space or funding to any group the Union deemed ‘racist, fascist or homophobic’; it aimed to uphold ‘the ethos of a diverse student community’. The ‘No Platform’ policy has remained in the background of Student Union Policy until recently, when we and a group of students tried to have it overturned.

The campaign that formed against us had a usual disdainful view of free speech, and employed the arguments of the old-school radicals. We were accused of all sorts, from political idealism and naivety to racism and shameless self-promotion. Yet worse than these charges was the fact of students convincing themselves the debate was not generally about free speech, but only concerned the idea of allowing the BNP onto campus.

We had already put a motion towards the 2007 AGM to overturn No Platform that had been defeated by the narrowest of margins. It was clear the issue was important to a large number of students at the meeting, so the process began for taking it to a referendum. This followed successful votes (amongst others) at the University of East Anglia, who voted with an admirable majority to scrap the policy there. We all felt from the start that this would be a tough act to follow, but although the result was unremarkable, the arguments from those in favour of No Platform were startling.

In the lead up to the vote, the ‘No’ campaign (which sought to uphold the No Platform policy) began by establishing how disastrous it would be to lawfully allow anybody at all to speak at Sussex. It would open the door to fascist organisations seeking to establish a foothold at British universities, which in turn would mean an increase in racial violence on campus, with ethnic minorities living there too scared to leave their front rooms. They claimed the Union was a private club, and like any other should be allowed to choose who addresses their members. Opening up to organisations like the BNP would confer legitimacy on their ideas, putting students under the influence of the wrong kind of people.

These arguments are disturbing on two counts. Firstly, they assume students are ideologically immature, blindly absorbing any political belief system that drifts their way. The point is usually enforced by the creation of a hypothetical student, so full of extremist rage that it would only take hearing a racist like Nick Griffin to send him into a violent campaign of hate against all ethnic minorities. Though this student remained elusive throughout the campaign, he was quite a talking point.

Secondly, the idea the Union is a private members club stems from a worry about having ‘the wrong kind of people’ on campus. A large portion of Sussex’s Union policy has been influenced by these generic wrongdoers. The first was the violent and poverty-ridden football fan, who reared his ugly head when plans to build a new stadium for Brighton and Hove Albion Football club were approved for a site opposite the University. The Union ran a campaign against the plans, complaining that ‘our bars would be full of football fans seeking cheap drinks’ and campus security would be ‘unequipped to control the crowds’, and these arguments appeared for weeks in our student newspaper.

It did not take long for a similar worry to emerge during discussions on No Platform. This time, the ‘No’ campaign looked to Moulsecoombe (a small, predominantly working class area surrounding campus) and claimed that inviting a fascist organisation onto campus would protract an influx of local fascists ‘from the surrounding area’. One couldn’t help but think that the football fan they were thinking of before may look a lot like these local fascists: fat, white and intent on destruction.

At the heart of these fears lies the idea that having the BNP on campus can only be destructive. The fact that Nick Griffin and co have managed to find themselves centre stage in the free speech debate is perhaps the most telling fact of all, and does more to ‘confer legitimacy’ than any university invitation ever could. Yet the NUS and Sussex University Student Union still insist the BNP’s ideas are too dangerous for us to hear, propagating fears about a party who struggle to gain council seats. It is a shame that at Sussex, we have chosen to compromise our respect for civil liberties in the face of such a trivial confrontation.

Yet despite the Union’s decision to retain the policy, it was encouraging to see so many students actively engaged in the debate about free speech. The vote had the biggest turn out for a referendum in Sussex’s history, and for two days the library concourse became a lively forum for debate. The result of the vote at least represents a starting point for the University of Sussex to join those Universities who have rejected this outdated and protectionist policy. 453 down, 731 to go.

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