Free speech is a right, but a platform is not

The OSFL debate is not about censorship, but about our right to express dissatisfaction about an event happening at our university.

The OSFL debate is not about censorship, but about our right to express dissatisfaction with an event happening at our university

Last week, students at Oxford University objected to a ‘debate’ hosted by a pro-life group entitled ‘This House Believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All.’

We’ve since been called Nazis and/or Stalinists, politically correct fascists, but most commonly, enemies of free speech.

This indicates a misunderstanding of what free speech actually entails. Some twitter users might be surprised to hear that actually, we understand that in a liberal society free speech is of course a fundamental right – but we also believe that this right can be dramatically misinterpreted.

If we accept the definition of freedom as the ability to perform an action without external constraint, then free speech is the ability to express opinions without government censorship. Free speech gives every individual the political right to speak without the state intervening.

We have a right to express our dissatisfaction about something happening in our university; Tim Stanley, Brendan O’Neill, and pro-life organizations have the right to express their dissatisfaction with the cancellation of their event.

It might be useful at this point to recap what actually happened, a narrative which has been drowned out by free-speech sensationalism. We organized a counter-event to voice our dissatisfaction with the framing of OSFL’s debate, and the exclusion of women’s voices from an issue about their bodies and choices.

We did not originally call for the event to be shut down by the college – we had intended to implement the no platform ourselves by popular protest. Ultimately, Christ Church decided to withdraw their platform and OSFL were forced to cancel the debate themselves when they could find no alternative venues to host their event.

No venue is obliged to host any debate, and the fact that no alternative venue was found does not constitute a violation of free speech.

We objected to the debate pre-supposing Britain’s ‘abortion culture’, a phrase that exposes the ‘objectivity’ of the debate to be pre-loaded with the anti-choice rhetoric of shame. It implies that abortion is a normalized and harmful social trend, creating associations with genuine social phenomena like ‘rape culture’.

This is a misleading implication which overwrites the experience of women, trans and non-binary people.

The right to be able to speak freely does not oblige anyone, especially not a private institution, to provide you with a platform – a means by which a person is able to talk, write, or otherwise communicate their opinions to an audience. Free speech is our right, but a platform is not.

One twitter user accused us of ‘intellectual cowardice’ for refusing to engage with the debate on OSFL’s terms, an attitude of entitlement which was incredibly common.

The right to say whatever you want, within the law, does not mean that any organisation must give you space to say it.

By choosing to host a speaker, an institution is always to some extent endorsing the terms of the debate, and vouching for the participants’ qualification to speak on a certain issue – O’ Neill and Stanley have little relevant lived experience to recommend them to speak about abortion other than their own opinions.

In Tim Stanley’s article, which has miraculously evaded the censorship of Oxford feminists to reach tens of thousands of readers, he refers to our ‘authoritarian’ mindset, our wish to ‘eradicate contrary ideas.’

This is a vast overstatement of the scope of our action: a small group of students do not have the right or the power to repress. Let’s consider the fact that Stanley was writing about his censorship in a national newspaper: he was denied a platform on one evening, at one specific place, in our university.

He is a powerful journalist with many platforms of his own. Criticism levelled at us has been characterized by the absence of any recognition of this balance of power.

Brendan O’Neill, among others, criticizes this generation of students for not being radical enough, for shrinking away from rather than challenging the establishment’s ‘orthodoxy’. The irony is that he is the establishment – and over the past week we have challenged his entitlement to speak for and over women.

To quote Tim Squirrell’s article on the OSFL controversy ‘We are challenging the claims of privileged men to have the right to speak wherever they want, whenever they want.’

I’m yet to read an objection to our opposition to OSFL’s debate that hasn’t been written by a cisgender white man. This generation of students and activists is standing up and saying that, for too long, men have spoken over women, trans and non-binary people, just as white people have spoken over people of colour.

My generation is saying that we should understand how this act reinforces oppressive power structures and social hierarchies. And although this may be a repulsive idea to some, sometimes this involves rethinking our right to speak at all times, for all people, on any topic.

Niamh McIntyre and Anna Burn are students at Oxford University. Follow Niamh on Twitter

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96 Responses to “Free speech is a right, but a platform is not”

  1. Guest

    Yes yes, you only listen to your little echo chamber. Keep pretending it’s other people hating on the West, though.

    And so you’re just a howling hypocrite, got it.

  2. Guest

    So the kids you force to be born into crushing poverty…unwanted kids…kids born of rape…severely disabled kids….

    Not much concern for them I see there.

  3. GhostofJimMorrison

    Yeah I should’ve spotted that; his post actually made sense, whereas Wolfey’s most certainly do not. They are ravings of a madman!

  4. GhostofJimMorrison

    I don’t hate the West, Wolfman. But unlike you I have no love for North Korea.

  5. S&A

    Just as a matter of interest, Niamh and Anna, how would you feel about a group of male students getting an event cancelled just because all the participants were female?

    Your actions were blatantly misandric and based purely on your own blinkered fanaticism. You did not want the debate to happen because you didn’t want the ‘pro-life’ side to get a say. A sign of maturity and confidence is a willingness to see alternative arguments given an airing, even if you passionately disagree with them. I am pro-choice, but I am also pro-free speech, and your attempt to smear the would-be participants as if they were justifying such obscenities as ‘rape culture’ is itself obscene.

    Your mob-style bullying ran counter to the spirit of academia, and the idea that universities are places where tutors and students should have their views challenged and should be able to defend them robustly, rather than denying their opponents the chance to speak.

    Shame on you for your blind, unreasoning fanaticism. And shame on Christ Church for capitulating to you.

  6. Mary Lee

    First of all, you have no idea where I donate my money and time. I am sticking to the subject at hand (abortion on demand and without apology). But your ad hominem attack has proven my earlier point. You have no compelling argument, just excuses.

    You’re also implying that poverty or being born somehow “imperfect” is a fate worse than a violent death (because abortion is violent). I have known people who were born into poverty (my family, for example), who went on to do wonderful things. I have known and worked with children and adults with what you would call “severe” disabilities who are beautiful examples of happiness and goodness and even joy. Perhaps you should meet these people and tell them–right to their face–that they should have never been born.

    The mistakes you have made are:
    1) Incorrectly assuming that if one is pro-life, one is really just pro-birth…..An incorrect assumption because it is the pro-life community that does more charity work for the poor and disabled than the pro “choice” community;

    2) Incorrectly imply that being “flawed” or “imperfect” or poor is reason to dismember an unborn child;

    3) Making the most grave mistake by implying this slaughter of “imperfect” unborn babies is merciful.

    That sounds far more fascist and despicable than wanting these babies to live.

  7. Guest

    So you’re lying repeatedly, no surprise at all, as you are trying to find invisible Werewolves, LordBlagger, as you refuse to admit the simple fact that the last real Monoculture on Earth is North Korea.

    Keep hating the West!

  8. Guest

    Ah yes, hating the Other and the West makes perfect sense to you, as you scream and froth that your personalities all think that my (singular) posts mean I’m mad because I am not a far right winger like you.

    Thanks, Lord Blagger.

  9. Leon Wolfeson

    I can see it from here, thanks. You are lashing out blindly because I said something which is evidently entirely true.

    Your implications are yours, as you praise poverty and ignore the impact of severe disability – Tay-Sachs in my community, for instance. Which is nasty, degenerative and fatal before age four.

    1) People with your politics statistically are far less generous to charity, per studies. You are far less likely to have disabled relatives, or be poor.

    2/3) You imply that no disability is too great, and no impact on the mother (i.e. rape pregnancies) worth worrying about.

    You blame me for your ideology, right, as you want to see babies born which will never survive an hour, and babies born where the mother will need to be locked for good because of the trauma. Oh, and let’s not forget pregnancies which will kill the mother. Nope!

    Moreover, you ignore the public health argument – you won’t stop abortions (women will just have them unsafely), and you will get a lot of abandoned kids – and if you persecute women for that, you’ll get more unsafe abortions. And of course you’ll advocate more state intrusion for that, and then….

    So right, your time and effort is clearly spent on your goal of controlling other people and limiting them based on your predjudice and romanticism of i.e. poverty and severe genetic illnesses.

  10. Julie

    Give me a break. I would bet that if Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neill were able to find another venue to host their debate you would have threatened to disrupt them in that there. Secondly, I didn’t realize that Niamh McIntyre and Anna Burn owned Oxford University and so therefore they had the right to dictate to other students what ideas they were exposed to.

  11. Mary Lee

    Prejudice and romanticism, you say?

    This little missive of yours sounds fascist to the core. It’s chilling. And the most frightening thing about it is you actually believe your hatred towards unborn babies is justified and even “good.”

  12. Guest

    Yes yes, not demanding that babies be carried to term NO MATTER WHAT is in your world is “fascist”, which just describes you.

    I am, unlike you, not making your arrant demands, that i.e. mothers who WILL die without an abortion…die.

    And you’re willing to condemn an infant to a nasty, painful and degenerative condition which will (not might, WILL) kill them at a very young age rather than allow parental choice.

    The hatred is yours, and you are also – of course – willing to launch your massive state control campaigns and to ignore the public health issues for your Jihad.

    And of course, I’m sure you have plenty of other issues over which you’d take control of people for.

  13. Mary Lee

    Strawman, ad hominem, slogan, excuses, tantrum. Yay you have the “I love abortion” playbook!

    Everything you’ve said is a dangerous lie.

    I have to make a confession here: It’s amusing to watch you become increasingly unhinged with every comment.

  14. Guest

    And you smear me with your playbook, what a surprise. Of course you see the existance of genetic diseases and rape as a “dangerous lie”, they don’t exist in your world, there’s nothing which can stop you from creating your police state with poor public health, right.

    Of *course* you view believing in the existence of rape and severe genetic disorders as “unhinged”, to go with your other barrage of insults.

    You evidently love abortion, since it gives you an excuse for your Jihad. Again – That women, who will die if she doesn’t have an abortion is, in your world, D-E-A-D. With the foetus you claim to care about so much. But evidently don’t, like any armchair fanatic you’re ignoring people for the principle above all.

  15. Guest

    You’re the same kind of fanatic who prosecutes women for having a miscarrage and you can find something offensive about their lifestyle.

    It’s increasingly frequent in America.

  16. Guest

    Keep yelling that everyone shares your limitations, as you deny rape and serious genetic diseases exist, you called talking about their existance a “dangerous lie”.

    It’s you.

  17. Leon Wolfeson

    “Mary Lee” is American, if you look at “her” post history. Moral Majority, highly Christian, “ban abortion in all situations regardless”. Same sort of fanatic who prosecutes women for miscarriages, and “she” in particular called my reference to the existence of rape and serious genetic disorders as a “dangerous lie”.

    I’m very pleased there are few indeed of her kind of threat to public safety in the UK. Because they seem quite happy to bomb clinics and attack doctors in America.

  18. Guest

    You’re not offering adoption, you’re not offering one whit of help for the babies. You’re simply focused on issues like your rape and severe genetic order denial.

  19. Mary Lee

    Oh yeah, I’m yelling. *eye roll*

    How much coffee have you HAD today?

  20. Leon Wolfeson

    So you willingly (and routinely, I’m sure) drink an drink containing an addictive stimulant. Sad. But see, unlike you I’m not willing to ban it – to remove people’s choices.

    So yes, you’re yelling.

    And of course your little buddies from your hate blog are over here to up-vote you. What a surprise.

  21. Lamia

    If someone is constantly breaking the law, why not?
    Free Speech in the UK is not the right to say whatever you want, it is “no prior restraint”.

    That’s quite right, but neither O’Neill nor Stanley were breaking the law or have a history of doing so. And neither could remotely plausibly be said to be encouraging, even implicitly, lawbreaking, violence etcetera.

    Compare with scores of Islamist hate preachers who have got away with openly supporting terrorism and advocating the killing of gay people, who are welcome speakers at our universities week in week out.

    There can be legimitate arguments about where the bar should be set; the main problem we currently have is with double standards about whom it is applied to in practice.

  22. Guest

    I was replying to a specific post.

    And yes, I have issues with your double standards – you invent “scores”, “week in week out” magical “Islamic hate speakers”, but ignore the issues which surround “pro-life” groups and violence.

    It’s appropriate for private venues to decide for themselves, your organisation – I note the we – is undoubtedly sore that they decided not to go ahead, but you have plenty of platforms. You just want to speak from them all, no doubt pushing your self-admitedly Islamophobic and anti-University agenda you just talked about there.

    Honestly, being anti-University would be the more likely cause for the cancellation if you’ve talked in that way before.

  23. Norfolk29

    Thank you for this information. Some time ago I found myself in conversation with a PR person from Moscow Central. She had the same type of outlook on the Ukrainian uprising.

  24. Mary Lee

    Rape denial? Fella, you are beyond the pale.

    I am a rape survivor. I also survived abuse, poverty, and a crisis pregnancy.

    You haven’t a leg to stand on.

  25. Guest

    You said it. I read your post. You called everything I said a dangerous lie – if you failed to read my post, that is not my issue: you were explicit chose to type that.

    You’re not fooling me with fake claims, “Mary”, as you once more romanticise poverty as something you “survive”.

    You’re an American troll, here to bring your type of hate – and violence – to Britain if you get half a chance, no matter what the cost.

    I’m sure you’d love to try and chop my legs off for standing in the way of your violence, true…

  26. Smell the BS

    Don’t know who Wolfman is but he sounds like my kind of guy

  27. BasementBoi

    Freedom of speech does not only relate to duties of the state.

    “…freedom of speech is a far broader Idea that includes additional cultural values. These values incooperate healthy intellectual habits, such as giving the other side a fair hearing, reserving judgement, tolerating opinions that offend or anger us, believing that everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, and recognizing that even people whose points of view we find repugnant might be (at least partially) right.

    At the heart of these values is epistemic humility – fancy way of saying that we must always keep in mind that we could be wrong, or at least, that we can always learn something from listening to the other side.” Greg Lukianoff – Freedom from speech

    Sad to see, that there is a growing hostility toward free speech as a cultural value.

  28. Mary Lee


    This is sad. Not only do you have no compelling argument beyond foot-stomping, you have no skills in debate at all. You aren’t even coherent.

    Why don’t you channel all that anger into something constructive?

    I have to go back to work now.

    You should take a nap or something.

  29. damon

    That’s a bit rich coming from you.
    Your trolling campaign worked, and I’m now banned off HP.

  30. S&A

    Cry me a river, Walt. It was the mods’ own decision to bin you.

  31. damon

    You were as bad as these Oxford students.
    Worse even. A one man band campaign.
    Well done you.

  32. S&A

    I don’t suppose it would occur to you that you probably got banned because you’re an obnoxious troll.

    And as I said, I had nothing to do with the decision. So deal with it and grow up.

  33. damon

    I’ll deal with it no problem.
    You never did ask Sarah AB about some of those things you insisted I was lying about did you?
    What would you have done if you had to accept I didn’t lie on internet forums?
    That’s too big an ”if” to answer I know.

    My biggest crime was to say that Israel often acted inhumanely.
    That’s it – and everything else was just a smokescreen.
    Your dishonesty was apparent to anyone who cared to see it.
    It’s the way of the mainstream Israel support movement.

  34. robertcp

    Stopping a debate taking place is not consistent with a belief in free speech. It really is quite simple.

  35. S&A

    Actually, Aldridge, what happened was you started by defending Nicolas Anelka over la Quennelle.

    Then rather than admit that you didn’t know what you were talking about, you started making up stories, then getting abusive when they were challenged. And you repeatedly cropped up on threads to derail them, just like a troll.

    So there’s a lesson there for you. Play nice, don’t make stuff up.

  36. Just Visiting

    It wasn’t clear what you meant by:
    > It’s always something subject to moral values, for any particular location.

    > Your argument is that if you allow one debate you must allow them all.
    > Which is ridiculous.

    I think a number have people here have made that very argument and would not agree with your suggestion that it is ridiculous – e.g. read BasementBoi above.

    The law does limit free speech (incitement to violence etc): but outside of that, debate of any subject is allowed under free speech.

  37. damon

    You never did get what I said about the quenelle.
    I said the football player was a prat and should have been told not to do it again. Maybe even fined by his club. A week’s wages I think I suggested. But what we didn’t need was a circus – and CST and Boards of Deputies trooping in and out of FA headquarters to explain to the football men what this gesture meant.
    You just saw that as ”defending Anelka”.

    You may be thick, or just wilfully sectarian.
    Do you even understand this point of view, about the latest racism row in football? About the Wigan chairman and their new manager?
    The thing with you is, you’ve never helped discussion of ideas move on, on this rather slow and clumsy medium.

    I made a comment on that article myself.
    Do you understand the points made, even if you disagree with them?

    I think, like what I said about the quenelle, it’ll go over your head.
    That was a problem on HP all the time. Many of the people who comment on it aren’t as clever as they think they are.

  38. Left free

    This article misses the point.

    We objected to the debate pre-supposing Britain’s ‘abortion culture’, a phrase that exposes the ‘objectivity’ of the debate to be pre-loaded with the anti-choice rhetoric of shame. It implies that abortion is a normalized and harmful social trend, creating associations with genuine social phenomena like ‘rape culture’

    The point of a debate with two side is that you can disagree with the motion if you wish. The motion was not illegal or hateful, but you can argue it is in debate. This article actually suggests we should limit free speech on the basis of gender. I would remind the authors that this country, like so many others, has a bad enough history of doing that already…

    The points of view expressed above are perfectly valid but there is confusion between what you don’t like (that it was to be hosted by a pro-life/anti-abortion group) and what it’s okay to have cancelled. I realise you claim you didn’t push for cancellation, but nor do you appear to mind it. Would that really be your view if the College had cancelled a debate organised by a pro-choice group?

  39. Lamia

    I haven’t ‘invented’ them, they have been documented for years at sites like: alone details the preachings of 40 hate preachers. Go and educate yourself.

    but ignore the issues which surround “pro-life” groups and violence.

    What issues? Scores of anti-abortion speakers, who advocate violence, speaking at our universities? Where? When? Point me to a list of them.

    your organisation – I note the we – is undoubtedly sore that they decided not to go ahead,

    The ‘we’ referred to the public. I’m not a member of any political or social organistion, let alone any one remotely connected with abortion, and have never even attended a talk, debate or protest for or against.

    I’m pro-choice, in any case. As is Brendan O’Neill, and I was defending him and Tim Stanley not for their views (I could hardly be supporting two opposing views) but because they haven’t broken the law or incited lawbreaking or violence. They can both be berks but neither are in the same realm as the Islamist hate preachers whose existence you affect to be unaware of.

    your self-admitedly Islamophobic and anti-University agenda

    I didn’t and do not admit anything of the kind. Apparently now it’s ‘Islamophobic’ and ‘anti-university’ for a gay person to object to universities hosting Islamist preachers who advocate discriminating against or murdering gay people. Funnily enough I’m really not keen on such people. The fact that you see the Islamist homophobes as the victim of prejudice is really quite sad. Evidently, had I objected to a university Christian Society hosting a homophobic preacher who advocated my murder that would make me an anti-Christian bigot.

    Honestly, being anti-University would be the more likely cause for the cancellation if you’ve talked in that way before.

    Again, that doesn’t make any sense. I had nothing to do with the proposed debate, and had no interest of going to it. I was simply commenting on the internet about levels of freedom of speech in universities and double standards pertaining to it. Evidently you are paranoid as well as an apologist for selected homophobes.

  40. damon

    I see you’re too involved with your macho war stories to have gotten back to me about the quenelle and whether you actually understood the points made in that Spiked article I linked too.
    The one about the racism scandal at Wigan football club.
    From what I gather from you, you’d not get it all, and just think that the guy writing that piece was ”defending racism” in the same way as you took me to be defending Anelka or defending the gesture he made.
    But what can you expect from thick sqaddies?
    Not much.

    That was the big problem with Harry’s Place. Too many people who were educated enough, but just kind of stupid and narrow minded at the same time?
    I never said I defended the quenelle. Just that the footballer doing it wasn’t such a big deal. And that it was a far more complex issue than the English FA could be expected to get their heads around.
    If things weren’t to decend into farce – like they have now, with even Mario Balotellli getting into bother for posting a tweet about the Mario Brothers video game where he made jokey comments about being a black man jumping and an oblique reference to Jewishness and grasping at coins. He was raised by a Jewish woman from the age of three.
    But because the FA has backed itself into a corner over PC attitudes to race etc, the only thing they can do is bring charges.

    But you still won’t get why I ”defended Anelka”.

  41. S&A

    Get a life, Aldridge.

    Preferably one with events that really happened.

  42. damon

    What didn’t happen? You can’t probably even remember what you said. But you won’t tell me whether you ”get” that Spiked article about the racism row at Wigan FC.
    Fair enough, following the norms of over the internet discourse is not something you do.
    You seemed to have preferred the kind of football fan goading of opposition supporters, where it’s all about one upmanship and being a bit of an arse. Like a sqaddie really. Is that what you were?
    I was in the TA once for a short while and got to see the mentality.
    A lot of them were ex-regulars and were deeply macho and quite thick.
    You never got the quenelle thing I said, because it would be like explaining something complicated to a sqaddie, or indeed to a lot of people I know too. But I don’t try to talk politics with them.
    I’d thought Harry’s Place was for grown up debate between people who knew how to talk about things – even when they disagreed.
    But it’s not really. It’s actually quite fundamentalist, with too many people who rate themselves far too highly.

  43. PaulineCBrown

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  44. trudatness

    This site should be called LEFT FOOT IN MOUTH. Purging ideas you disagree with is Orwellian.

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