Free speech for all, including the rancid BNP


Trinity’s ban on Nick Griffin only bolsters his supposed status as a censored outsider

A TWISTY debate has just been reignited in the letters page of this newspaper. Two months ago, the University Philosophical Society in Trinity College Dublin felt obliged to call off a visit from the unlovely Nick Griffin, chairman of the British National Party. Not surprisingly, the initial invitation to speak to the motion “Immigration Has Gone Too Far” was greeted with a degree of grumbling and fist waving. Despite a few feeble attempts to detoxify their image – unlike some of his predecessors, Griffin walks upright and has opposable thumbs – the BNP remains a rancid organisation. “I am well aware that the orthodox opinion is that six million Jews were gassed and cremated and turned into lampshades,” Griffin said in 1997. “Orthodox opinion also once held that the world is flat.”

Citing safety reasons, the college eventually withdrew the invitation. As is often the case in these situations, the BNP went on savour their supposed status as suppressed, censored outsiders.

The kerfuffle refused to die down. A few weeks ago, a representative of the “Irish Free Speech Movement” called upon the Trinity authorities to “re-invite Mr Griffin”. The letter’s signatories believe that, by entertaining this far-right clown, the college would confirm its commitment to free speech. Counterblasts arrived. The Government and Politics Society at UCC announced that Griffin had accepted an invitation to speak at the college. Griffin chuckled quietly in his mock-Tudor lair.

In the 1980s every time some National Front bruiser was invited to a university debate, a particular slogan would suddenly appear throughout that campus. At the bottom of each hastily mimeographed poster – decorated with images of Mrs Thatcher in a Hitler moustache – you could read the dread, absurdly ill-judged phrase: “No free speech for fascists!”

The self-annihilating nature of that slogan fairly spins the brain. If you don’t believe in free speech for fascists, then you don’t believe in free speech. If you don’t believe in free speech, then you are probably a fascist. But wait. This poster tells me that fascists don’t deserve free speech. I’d better tear it from the wall then.

A belief in free speech means absolutely nothing unless you exercise it to defend those with whom you violently disagree. Any moderate citizen can, without too great a strain, tolerate somebody at the other end of the democratic spectrum. The true test of such commitment comes when the reasonable person (of course, almost all of us think ourselves reasonable) runs up against a genuine spittle-flecked loon arguing for some school of totalitarianism. You find him or her dangerous? What they are saying offends your inner core? Big deal. Angry southern sheriffs felt the same way about civil rights campaigners in the 1960s. A similar sense of righteous anger fuels the ban on homosexual activity in too many countries. If you feel properly disgusted at the unfettered ravings of that man with the foghorn, then you can comfort yourself with the knowledge that your nation just might be a home to freedom of speech.

We should here – somewhat belatedly – acknowledge that those letters supporting the Trinity ban have made a distinction between allowing a person to speak and providing him or her with a platform. The Philosophical Society choseto invite Griffin.

Similar arguments raged around the BBC’s decision to invite Griffin on to Question Timein 2009. But the situation is subtly different. The corporation has, as regards that programme, always had a policy of including politicians who represent a party that has achieved notable electoral success. Once Griffin became an MEP he gained, under that principle, a right to bellow twaddle at the relevant Dimbleby. Don’t blame the Beeb. Blame the (pardon my biased brain) morons who voted for the BNP.

The Phil can invite whomever it likes to its debates. It is, however, probably as well not to overstuff the Graduates Memorial Building with, say, anti-Semites, neo-fascists, cockfighters, gay bashers or eugenicists. Nobody has a right not to be offended. But it is good manners to avoid upsetting decent folk as much as possible.

Once such an invitation has, however, been extended the situation becomes tricky. The thinking democrat should realise that the cause of anti-fascism is far better served by allowing such unsavoury individuals to speak. The fact that Griffin is permitted on stage clarifies that he is, for all his protestations, living in (or visiting) a country that has respect for individual expression.

On virtually every occasion Griffin has been barred from speaking, he has taken the opportunity to stand at the locked gate and protest that the authorities have demonstrated their disdain for free speech. Whisper it quietly. On these occasions – if on no others – he might actually be right.