Peter Tatchell’s clashes with fellow activists may be a turning point in the campus speech wars. Compromise is key, he says.

An authoritarian streak in contemporary student politics is fast becoming one of the more popular subjects of satire and scorn in the public sphere. Clashes on campus are seen by many as accurate snapshots of the wider Culture Wars, growing pains of unresolved tensions between the extent of free expression and the protection of people from its darker side.

In February, the National Union of Students’ LGBT representative Fran Cowling withdrew from a public event on queer culture at Canterbury Christ Church University, refusing to share a stage with long-standing activist Peter Tatchell on the grounds that he had added his name to a petition that contained some polarising names, including trans-exclusionary radical feminists Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer.

The 64-year-old’s career has included a stint as Labour’s Parliamentary candidate for Bermondsey in 1981, 26 years in non-violent gay rights group OutRage! and the campaign Stop Murder Music, which condemned the use of homophobic lyrics. Not unfamiliar with being placed in the firing line, this time Tatchell found himself faced with a different kind of opponent.

“I was criticised for signing an Observer letter that defended free speech,” Tatchell says. “Including the free speech of people I strongly disagree agree with on trans issues and who I have repeatedly criticised, such as Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer.

“This letter did not utter a single word of criticism of trans people, let alone oppose their equal human rights. Supporting free speech does not mean endorsing the content of that speech. As the German communist, Rosa Luxemburg, argued: freedom of speech means nothing if it does not exist for the person who thinks differently.

“The intolerant student Left has even turned on me – a lifelong civil rights campaigner,” Tatchell wrote in an article for the Daily Telegraph, describing a campus climate that is more McCarthyist than educational.

“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.”

Standing firm: Peter Tatchell’s experience has not deterred him from progressive causes. Pic: Peter Tatchell
Standing firm: Peter Tatchell’s experience has not deterred him from pursuing progressive causes

Tatchell defends Cowling’s right not to share a platform with him but took issue with the reasons she gave for her withdrawal. Tarring Tatchell with the same brush as his fellow signatories has been seen as a call for an ideological purity that steps beyond ideas and into association.

“My objection was to Cowling’s false allegation that I am ‘racist’ and ‘transphobic’ and her . . . claim that she was acting on behalf of the NUS membership,” he says.

Sceptics who formerly dismissed the chilly campus climate as conservative hand-wringing have since re-evaluated the situation. A growing number of students, academics, journalists and campaigners view the developments with despair, worrying that UK campuses will go the way of Yale and Mizzou in the USA.

The NUS “no platform policy” has never been implemented without controversy. Its origin lies in opposition to Holocaust deniers, hate groups, open fascists and theocratic recruiters. Though he was never no platformed, and has not claimed as such, Tatchell describes Cowling’s withdrawal as a “variation” of the practice.

But the anti-racist, anti-fascist roots of the policy are now very much in the rear view mirror, and the list of offenders has grown alarmingly large.

“Many progressive people and organisations have been victims of attempts to no-platform them,” he said. “This includes the Iranian communist and feminist, Maryam Namazie, and activists in student Atheist Secular and Humanist Societies, who have be falsely accused of racism, anti-Muslim prejudice, neo-colonialism and worse.”

Tatchell’s career as a civil rights activist will soon enter its fiftieth year; it’s difficult to imagine a less likely candidate to fall foul of a NUS figurehead. It begs the question: who is honestly safe at this point? Who is left? If Tatchell’s credentials in progressive causes aren’t adequate, what hope is there for any other campus speaker?

Though he views the intentions and goals of students more charitably than most, Tatchell finds no merit in where these intentions have led them.

“It’s a race to see who can be more left-wing and politically correct than anyone else… and it has resulted in an intimidating, excluding atmosphere on campuses.”

However, unlike many conservative and civil libertarian commentators, Tatchell remains in favour of no platform and safe space policies in the correct circumstances, and optimistically believes they can be reconciled with free expression. However, it remains a delicate and difficult balance to maintain. On March 17, Tatchell gave a speech outside the NUS headquarters.

“Free speech can only be legitimately restricted when someone makes false, damaging allegations – such as that a person is a racist or child sex abuser when they are not – or when they engage in threats, harassment or the endorsement of violence,” he said.

“We are urging the NUS to revise – not scrap – its no-platform and safe space policies, to make them consistent with free speech.

“The National Union of Students’ no-platform and safe space policies are being abused to restrict the free expression of an increasing number of feminists, ex-Muslims, left-wingers and human rights campaigners.”

Either way, it seems change is on the horizon. This case stands out as special, even among other prominent exclusions of campus speakers. Seeing far-right fascism in Peter Tatchell may prove to be a catalyst; the straw that breaks the camel’s back for campus censorship.

Though we have yet to see the end of students’ desires for safe spaces and stripping undesirables of platforms (for better or worse), Tatchell’s proposed compromise – a revision of the existing policies instead of all-or-nothing abolition, may yet gain traction.

It looks set to be an extremely difficult dialogue to have, as right now safe spaces remain firmly locked and with platforms removed, one wonders how it can begin. The way forward begins with dialogue: as simple and achievable as sharing a platform with people you disagree with.