Changing my opinions on freedom of speech?

For a long time, I supported the 'no-platform for the BNP' policy, specifically at the LSE Students' Union. It meant, in essence, that the BNP were not to be invited to speak on any LSE SU platform and that no member of the LSE SU could speak on a platform with a member of the BNP other than in a personal capacity. In essence, it was the same idea as a cordon sanitaire.

Two recent events are leading me to think about that position anew; Mahmoud Ahmedinejad's speech at Columbia university and the Alisher Usmanov affair.

One of the arguments behind the no-platform policy was that the BNP could use the association with the LSE's brand to make themselves appear more legitimate. Indeed, I've heard it said that the LSE's most valuable piece of property is the red square device. That would not seem to be the case with Ahmedinejad - he was described by Lee Bollinger as "exhibiting all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator" and was mocked for saying that
"In Iran, we don't have homosexuals, like in your country. We don't have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have it".
I'd say that, at least in the Western media, he was made to look foolish in asserting some of his dogmatic beliefs against pretty conclusive evidence to the contrary (such as Iran's policy of executing homosexuals). It didn't make him seem less dangerous, but it did show that his assertions are based on an, at best, tangential relationship with reality. I don't know how it would play in Iran.

One of the comparisons I would draw between Ahmedinejad and the BNP - other than Holocaust denial and homophobia - is that their statements are probably not aimed at people who don't share their opinions; rather, they are aimed at rallying the 'true believer' and swaying those who tend that way.

While Ahmedinejad was made to look a fool (a dangerous fool, but a fool nonetheless) in the Western media, I don't know how it would have played at home. What is certain is that Ahmedinejad didn't gain any legitimacy as a statesperson by appearing at Columbia.

In short, I am not sure which way a utilitarian argument would fall on the arguments made above. However, recent events have, as I mentioned, meant that I am increasingly likely to come down against the no platform policy. I should say that I don't consider a no platform policy per se to be against free speech; there are untold ways of communicating one's message, particularly with the advent of the internet. Individual organisations refusing to allow the association of their name with a given political position only becomes problematic when free speech as a whole comes under threat.

Enter stage left, Alisher Usmanov. The entire sorry sage, including one oligarch, a law firm, some bloggers and the former ambassador to Uzbekistan can be found here. Usmanovgate is only one example of the various problems with UK libel law (information and solutions from the Ministry of Truth) I am increasingly of the opinion that no platform is heading in the wrong direction.


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