In 2017, the UK’s education secretary Jo Johnson made a promise to crack down on the no-platform policies that he saw as limiting free speech on campus. His statements had a substantial subsequent backlash and the fines never materialised. The argument he made was one that right-wing pundits typically bring up to attack deplatforming and is the one explored here. The less sophisticated version of this argument often prefers to resort to name-calling - e.g. students are snowflakes.
Suspending a speaker merely because of student discomfort would be wrong. Discomfort is a subjective and highly variable thing. Different things make different people uncomfortable, so using it as a criterion for decision-making could ban speakers for arbitrary and illegitimate reasons. Students will not be protected by the cocoon of university forever. Eventually, they will have to emerge into the real world and confront adversity and differences in opinion. It is better that they start learning how to cope with that sooner rather than later. This is important not only for their own academic health but also for societal cohesion as a whole. The ability to engage with views diametrically opposed to yours is a valuable and necessary skill for participants in a pluralistic democracy.
This argument attacks a criminally strawmanned version of the case in support of no-platforming. No-platforming does not typically happen to people that unions find merely annoying or silly. The reason speakers get deplatformed is because they make marginalised people feel literally unsafe existing as themselves, or because they espouse ideas that directly harm marginalised people. The students who support no-platforming are capable of dealing with challenging, complex arguments. When they no-platform a speaker they have simply made an evaluation that the ideas they espouse are either directly dangerous to the student body, or not worth engaging with. Just because the world is a dangerous and violent place towards marginalised identities, this doesn’t mean that universities should replicate that environment within their walls. If they can make life better for LGBT, ethnic minority and disabled students within the university, why shouldn’t they?
P1. The outside world is not worried about causing offence and forces you to confront difficult opinions P2. Universities should reflect the outside world in most regards C1. Universities should make students confront difficult opinions
Rejecting the premises
Rejection of P2. Universities can strive to make the world a better place, starting with their own campuses.