Censorship, plain and simple?

By Richard Black|November 26, 2014|Research|146 comments

A few months ago, I had a visit from a senior diplomat at the Thai embassy in London. A charming, intelligent and urbane man, he had come with a colleague to express concern at the fact that SOAS had advertised a lecture by Pavin Chachavalpongpun, a Thai academic based at Kyoto University in Japan on political developments in Thailand since 2006. Dr Chachavalpongpun is wanted in Thailand for alleged breaches of Article 112 of the Thai criminal code – the lese majeste law – which prevents anyone in Thailand from criticising the King.

This law is widely seen as being used by the military regime in Thailand to target opposition, and has been used since against others speaking in academic settings, such as Sulak Sivaraksa, a historian, who was charged over comments he made at an academic forum at Thammasat University in which he questioned whether there was evidence behind the story of King Naresuan winning an elephant battle against a Burmese general 400 years ago. Notwithstanding the concerns of the Thai government, the SOAS lecture in July went ahead without incident (albeit by video-link from Japan, as Dr Chachavalpongpun was prevented from travelling), and is archived for anyone who wishes to listen to it.

Happily, neither the Thai government, nor any other government, has a veto on who can and cannot speak at SOAS, and at other universities in the UK. Yet if the counter-terrorism bill, which was placed before parliament today by Theresa May, were to become law, that might change. The context is real public concern about the apparent radicalisation of young Britons, some of whom have gone to fight in wars in Syria and Iraq. Yet whether or not the concern that radicalised individuals represent a terror threat here in the UK is well-founded (and this concern certainly extends beyond the Home Secretary), the proposed solution contained in the bill is a profoundly bad idea, which should be opposed by all universities.

Why so? Well, the stuff of intellectual life in universities is debate, and the free expression of ideas. The British higher education system rightly has a worldwide reputation for research and teaching excellence, and this is founded on the principle that we do not simply lecture to our students – we ask them to read, to think, to listen, and to argue, based on information gleaned from a wide range of perspectives. In research too, whether it is microbiology or Tibetan Buddhism, we need to hear views and arguments that are different to our own, in order to develop new knowledge, and find new ways of thinking and being. That is true whether the goal is the development of new materials based on nanotechnology, or whether it is to build a more tolerant, prosperous or harmonious society. Saying that some views or positions cannot be heard surely sets back true intellectual inquiry. It is doubly concerning when the person holding the veto sits in government.

At SOAS, we have had our fair share of controversial speakers over the years – speakers whose presence on campus has upset everyone from the Daily Mail to some of our own students and academic staff. For example, a student society who invited a speaker to talk about why lending money with interest is forbidden under Islam was condemned by the Evening Standard for ‘allowing a preacher who has spoken in support of female genital mutilation to give a talk on campus’. The same event was condemned by the Mail as involving an ‘extremist cleric’ who had a ‘history of hate speech against Jews and gays’. The merits and ethics of giving this individual a platform anywhere could be debated. Certainly the press coverage he received on this visit to SOAS could hardly be seen as helping his cause.

Meanwhile, other speakers, with other points of view, have also been condemned. For example, an event last year was terminated when protesters from outside campus stormed a lecture where a critic of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood was speaking. On other occasions, we have been criticised internally for hosting, amongst others, the Israeli ambassador and David Willetts. Bullying and violent protest against such speakers is arguably as invidious as direction from central government.

Supporting freedom of speech in universities is not easy or straightforward. Our own Student Union at SOAS, in common with a number of other unions, has a ‘no platform for fascists’ policy. Yet exactly who is a ‘fascist’ is open to interpretation. We might say that anyone can speak, so long as they do so in a civil and calm way. Yet as Nicholas Dirks, the Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, recently found in commemorating the 50th anniversary of the free speech movement, such qualifications on the right of free speech are also fraught with difficulties – indeed, ‘civility’ is not a pre-condition for free speech.

It is certain that universities will lobby in private against this bill. It may or may not become law. And the hard ethical choices about the limits on freedom of speech – in any setting – will still be there. But either way, this is a bill that we should be debating, amongst ourselves as academics, and with the public more broadly – not just privately.

That’s because it is not obvious why someone with repugnant views – whether they are on women, gays, Muslims or anyone else – should be given the right to air them in public. Yet from an academic standpoint, hearing and addressing all perspectives is of critical importance. And the moment when a law tells us we cannot do that is censorship, plain and simple.

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