No platform – for whom?

Mike Phipps reviews No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring No Platform in History, Law and Politics, by David Renton, published by Routledge.

This book is about a lot more than the rights and wrongs of the policy of No Platform for fascists. Renton looks at the history of censorship and how it was the right wing that imposed it and the left which always fought it. There are some interesting examples: I was unaware, for example, that as late as the 1960s, many New York schools still refused to teach George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, often read as a critique of the Stalinist system, on the grounds that its author was supposedly a communist.

Far more serious was the suppression of media reports of state brutality. There is no greater known example in the liberal west at this time than the events in France in October 1961.  “A peaceful march through Paris of 30,000 demonstrators calling for freedom for the people of Algeria, who were living under curfew, was attacked by the police, who killed at least 120 people… Eyewitness accounts were kept out of the next-day’s papers while films covering the event were censored. Meetings to protest the killings were banned.”

While the scale of police killing on this occasion was exceptional, the ban on protest was not and continues today. In May this year, the French government, as part of its war on so-called ‘Islamo-leftism’, issued a blanket ban on protests in solidarity with Palestine.

The left historically stood for freedom of expression, but at times has faced an urgent dilemma: “As the far right grew during the late 1970s, the generation which had campaigned for universal free speech found itself increasingly having to choose whether it really did support absolute freedom of expression – if that included the people who would happily see the left in jail, its bookshops on fire, and its magazines closed down.”

This was not a new debate for the left, which had taken to the streets in the 1930s to physically prevent fascist marches. But in Britain, argues Renton, ultimately it was the state’s policy of interning fascist leaders during World War II that thwarted the movement.

Moves in the 1970s in favour of No Platform went beyond simply breaking up fascist gatherings. They embraced the idea that schools, universities and other organisations should refuse openly racist or fascist organisations a platform. This became the policy of the National Union of Students in 1974 and has remained so ever since.

Although the target of the policy was broader than overtly fascist organisations – the Monday Club faction of the Conservative Party was listed, for example, in the resolution – the aim was to target racist organisations rather than racism or racist speech as such, because its supporters argued, it was these organisations that were the real threat to free speech. In the 1970s, to no-platform racism more generally would have meant the closure of much of Britain’s ‘free press’.

Some left activists argued that these ideas should be defeated politically. Others argued that the suffering caused by racist speech meant all such speech should be no-platformed. Over the next few years, these ideas became a mass movement with the emergence of the Anti-Nazi League. Some Labour local authorities banned the use of council facilities to fascist groups and the technicians’ union ACTT refused to air National Front election broadcasts.

But the movement did not always win and it was often the state that stepped in to defend the free speech of fascists. In April 1979, there were violent scenes in Southall when the council allowed a National Front meeting to take place at the Town Hall, despite a petition from 10,000 residents against it. The police attacked the protest with ferocity, notoriously killing schoolteacher Blair Peach and seriously injuring Clarence Baker, a local black musician. Renton reports:

“Baker worked with a local youth campaign Peoples Unite Education, which had its headquarters in Southall, a building which also held literacy, numeracy, and drama and dance classes. On the night that the police killed Blair Peach and struck Clarence Baker, they also rioted through the People’s Unite headquarters, breaking doors, walls, and plaster. The damage was so extensive that Ealing Council had to demolish the building.”

The Rock Against Racism leaflet in response to these events was consistent with its earlier justification of no platform for fascists, based on the rights of free speech for all. “What free speech needs martial law?” it asked.  “What public meeting requires 5,000 people to keep the public out?”

Others took a different view. In 1977-8, the American Civil Liberties Union supported on free speech grounds a proposed march by fascists through a Chicago suburb where many Holocaust survivors lived. Even though the fascists could muster only a handful of marchers, the ACLU’s provision of free legal representation for the organisers proved deeply divisive. In the longer term, the case helped cement unlimited free speech as the foremost constitutional principle in the US, taking precedence over all others.

The ACLU’s stance, however, did not make for less confrontation. Anti-fascists took to the streets to prevent fascists organising. In November 1979, in Greensboro, North Carolina, five were shot dead in a confrontation with neo-Nazis.

In France, the breakthrough of the Front National came after its leader appealed – successfully – to Socialist President François Mitterrand for representative state media coverage. Painting itself as a victim of unfair treatment, its support began to grow.

Many people on the French left I spoke to at the time believed that Mitterrand had deliberately facilitated the growth of the FN in order to place his mainstream right wing political opponents in a high-stakes dilemma over whether to form political alliances with the far right. If they did, they would be tarnished by the brush of fascism. If this analysis is accurate, it was to say the least a highly perilous and cynical tactic.

The French FN’s attempt to find respectability was emulated by other fascist parties in Europe, including the British National Party.  Some of these movements were free of past fascist links and claimed to support pluralist politics. Muslims were the new target –especially after 9.11. In the process, these parties claimed to be champions of free speech, including the right to be offensive, particularly in a religious context, a claim that could be connected to revolutionary secular principles, especially in France.

This approach has paid dividends. Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Benjamin Netanyahu have all claimed they have been prevented from speaking because they tell unwelcome truths. As early as 1991, President George H. W. Bush told students at the University of Michigan that free speech was “under assault throughout the United States, including on some college campuses,” and blamed “political correctness.” This volte-face from traditional conservative scepticism about unlimited free speech has proved an effective attack line against the left and now finds its expression in the Johnson government’s proposed law to promote ‘free speech’ on UK campuses.

In the US, the expatriate British far right journalist Milo Yiannopoulos organised a series of speaking events in universities around provocative talking points.  Invariably these events were surrounded by violence. When protests forced the cancellation of some, Yiannopoulos could pose as the wounded party: “Free speech belongs to everyone, not just the spoilt brats of the academy.”

Given that his followers were not a solid army of fascists with a history of violence against their enemies, but rather “a ragtag group of individuals at every point on the right-wing spectrum, from conservatives to supporters of the alt-right”, perhaps the left played into his hands by its policy of no platform, suggests Renton.

In Britain, Tommy Robinson tried to portray himself similarly as a martyr to free speech. But his rise to prominence, including  a million friends on Facebook, cannot be fully explained, in my view, without some reference to the huge sums of US money that have poured into his coffers, recently making him the UK’s best funded politician.

The right’s claim to be a victim of free speech vigilantes must be called out for the hypocrisy that it is. As one blogger recently pointed out:

“Laurence Fox calls for the Leicester City players who carried a Palestinian flag after the FA Cup final to be hounded out.  Matthew Offord MP demands that the BBC not broadcast an edition of Desert Island Discs because of Alexei Sayle’s ant-Zionism… These are all examples of how the right are opposed to free speech… And yet these attacks upon freedom come from people who claim to be champions of free speech and protectors of academic freedom. They present themselves as victims of repression, beleaguered by ‘wokesters’…”

In recent years, the debate about no platform has moved to social media. Under pressure, many of the major platforms have finally banned far right propagandists. Why did they wait so long? Renton’s answer unmasks the profit-driven cynicism behind the ‘people-friendly’ brands: “A 2018 documentary for Channel 4’s Dispatches series showed the training Facebook gave to its staff, in which employees were shown images of a toddler being beaten by a man and a girl kicking another young woman unconscious. The show described how Facebook staff were encouraged to see such violent images as the means to drive viewer engagement and increase advertising revenue.”

Between joining Twitter in 2009 and summer 2017, Donald Trump acquired over 36 million followers. Every time the media reported his posts, it drove people to the site to read him. One financial analyst estimated that if Donald Trump had to leave Twitter the company’s value would fall by $2 billion. “From that perspective, we can start to see why social media companies were so slow to criticise his tweets – even when they promoted racism, sexism, or violence, and even when they retweeted obscure figures from the neo-Nazi fringe.” Only after a massive campaign and in the dying days of the Trump Administration did that change.

Renton’s book offers a thoughtful and wide-ranging discussion of the issue of free speech. His conclusion is pretty cautious: “No platform is justified only by the fascist nature of the politics at which it is addressed. The tactic loses its legitimacy when it is applied to non-fascist speakers or groups, even when they are relatively close to fascism. The further a person is from fascism on the political spectrum, the less likely it is that no platforming will be a principled or effective tactic against them.”

Which is not to say that other tactics can’t be used against objectionable non-fascist speakers: orchestrated walkouts, heckling, picketing and ridicule, for example. In the end, the goal of left-wing politics has to be “not the abolition of fascism, but the satisfaction of the desire of millions to speak and be heard. The tactical opposition to the speech rights of fascists is an early part of that larger understanding, that we need more speech not less.”

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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