Jacob Williams believes he is fighting against an overwhelming contempt for free expression at Britain’s universities. Fearing that a ‘fundamental principle of liberal democracy’ is under threat, he attempts to position his No Offence publication as an attempt to save ‘Britain’s future as a free country’, and in doing so convince all to support the desperately needed crusade to save free speech. Britain’s ‘censorious sect of secular zealots’ are nothing but freedom-hating prudes who would rather see subversive material scorched to cinders than risk the slightest offence.
But none of this is remotely true. Free speech is not under threat in any meaningful way in Britain’s universities, and concerns over offence are simply not at the heart of no-platforming policy. Williams and those who agree with him are arguing against nothing more than a straw man, and it would be a great shame if Freshers – or, indeed, anybody – were asked to oppose an unforgivably misconstrued no-platforming principle. There may be entirely valid criticisms against them, but Open Oxford and No Offence are not making them.
The decision to ‘ban’ the pro-colonialist, ostensibly satirical emesis in No Offence is based on a desire to prevent not offence but harm. It is based on the belief that speech acts contribute to opinion-formation, and that opinion-formation is the first step towards action. It follows that speech acts that contribute to harm shouldn’t be legitimised, lest they contribute to oppressive actions. This is not the same as banning those speech acts; merely acknowledging that they shouldn’t be given institutional backing.
Really, this is all the OUSU decision amounts to – the expression of the desire to remove institutional backing from No Offence. All that has happened is that the publication has been made ‘marginally more difficult to distribute’. Williams will have to forgive me if I don’t see this as analogous to, say, the banning and burning of Kafka and Brecht. If making a publication ‘marginally more difficult to distribute’ precipitates an outcry leading to two articles in national newspapers and a Cherwell article fearing for the future of Britain’s liberties, it is difficult to believe that there is any genuine threat to free speech.
If those who share Williams’s concern for rational debate and free speech want to question the no-platforming argument on its own, fairly represented terms, then I and many others would no doubt be willing to engage. If No Offence was truly keen to contribute to a discourse on free speech, it might try to demonstrate that the link between speech acts and oppression doesn’t hold, or that the Left misidentifies the groups that are genuinely marginalised in today’s society. No Offence appears to do neither of these things. It would be a shame if its proponents were content to lazily critique an obviously easy target. In the meantime, please read the Mail and Telegraph articles. Find No Offence distributed both online and in print around Oxford. And while you’re reading a publication that’s been distributed everywhere but at Freshers Fair, remember that free speech is on the verge of disappearing forever.
PHOTO/ No Offence Magazine