Free speech and enlightenment values are under attack in our universities. In the worthy name of defending the weak and marginalised, many student activists are now adopting the unworthy tactic of seeking to close down open debate. They want to censor people they disagree with. I am their latest victim.
This is not quite the Star Chamber, but it is the same intolerant mentality. Student leader Fran Cowling has denounced me as racist and transphobic, even though I’ve supported every anti-racist and pro-transgender campaign during my 49 years of human rights work.
Fran is the LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) Officer of the National Union of Students (NUS). She refused to speak at an LGBT event at Canterbury Christ Church University tonight unless I was dropped from the line-up. This is a variation of the NUS “no-platform” policy; instead of blocking me from speaking, Fran is refusing to share a platform with me.
She has every right to do this. But she does not have any right to make false McCarthyite-style smears. When asked to provide evidence of my supposed racism and transphobia, she was not willing to do so. There is none. Privately I tried to get her to withdraw her outrageous, libellous allegations. But she spurned all my attempts to resolve this matter amicably. As a result I have decided to take my case public.
Let us deal with the specifics of my case first. Fran Cowling claimed in an email to the university that she was speaking for the NUS and its policies, suggesting that she was acting on behalf of the NUS “membership”, who “believe” me to be racist and transphobic.
I challenged the NUS over when and where this decision was taken by the membership and why I was not allowed to defend myself before the vote. They conceded that the membership had never decided against me.
In another email to the LGBT event organiser, Fran made the allegation that she has personally witnessed me using racist language. Untrue. I challenged Fran to produce evidence for this claim. She has failed to produce it – because the accusation is baseless.
Photo: Geoff Pugh/The Telegraph
Fran also said that I signed a letter to The Observer last year supporting the right of feminists to be “openly transphobic” and to “incite violence” against transgender people. The letter I signed did not say this. Written in support of free speech, it did not express any anti-transgender views or condone anti-transgender violence. For decades, I have opposed feminists such as Germaine Greer who reject and disparage transgender people and their human rights.
This sorry, sad saga is symptomatic of the decline of free and open debate on some university campuses. There is a witch-hunting, accusatory atmosphere. Allegations are made without evidence to back them – or worse, they are made citing false, trumped-up evidence.
Disappointingly, Fran and the entire NUS leadership have turned down media requests to be interviewed and to debate the issues involved. This looks and feels cowardly. When challenged, they run, hide and denounce from the “safe space” of their laptops.
This is the antithesis of the free and open inquiry that is supposed to be the hallmark of university learning and culture.
The race to be more Left-wing and politically correct than anyone else is resulting in an intimidating, excluding atmosphere on campuses. Universal human rights and enlightenment values – including John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty – are often shamefully rubbished as the ideas of Western imperialist white privilege.
I am all in favour of protesting against real racists and transphobes. But the most effective way to do this is to expose and counter their bigoted ideas, not censor and ban them. I’ve often debated religious fundamentalists and homophobes. They’ve lost the argument; leaving them weakened and discredited.
I don’t see the NUS as the enemy. I support their efforts to defend student rights and back their opposition to tuition fees and education cuts. I just disagree with the way some of them choose to deal with other people’s opinions. Anyone who doesn’t toe the line politically risks being denounced, even over the tiniest disagreement.