The Right to Free Speech vs. The Right to an Audience

By: Ari Lamm

This past Monday, the Oxford Union hosted a Free Speech Forum aptly termed “a night of discussion on the limits of free speech.” The prestigious debating society, which aspires to be “at the cutting edge of controversy,” chose to invite as participants in the forum, infamous Holocaust-denier David Irving, and Chairman of the British National Party (and also Holocaust-denier) Nick Griffin. This decision provoked a good deal of outrage and, as the always-excellent John Burns reports in the New York Times, resulted in about 300 protestors storming the Oxford Union debate hall and sitting on the head table in an attempt to prevent the forum from taking place. The forum was unable to proceed as planned, but was split into two smaller forums and continued in guarded rooms.

In light of an upcoming event hosted by the Y.U. Ethics Center in conjunction with Kol Hamevaser featuring a discussion on responding to offensive speech, it seems pertinent to comment on the Oxford Union’s Free Speech Forum and the subsequent reaction.

At the outset it should be noted that no matter whom the Oxford Union chose to invite to the Free Speech Forum, the conduct of the protestors who attempted to shut down the entire event by force is inexcusable. The very same right that guarantees the demonstrators’ right to be upset about an Oxford Union event also guarantees the Oxford Union’s right to not care. The question that remains, however, is should the Oxford Union care?

There are two separate issues at play in the Oxford Union controversy that tend to become entangled in the debate over the limits (or lack thereof) of free speech: freedom of speech, and right to an audience. With regard to the former, Oxford Union President Luke Tryl wrote in a letter to Union members, “Stopping [people like Messrs. Irving and Griffin] from speaking only allows them to become free speech martyrs.” On its face, this seems unobjectionable. Although one might argue that there are certain ideas that are so reprehensible that they must be suppressed, such an argument would suffer from a dangerous lack of definition or, the “slippery slope” hazard. In the end, the freedom to express ideas must remain unfettered – and Mr. Tryl’s argument is valid insofar as it advances that proposition.

Mr. Tryl, however, is not arguing for that proposition. He is arguing for David Irving’s and Kevin Griffin’s right to an audience. Mr. Tryl seems to be under the impression that not only do David Irving and Kevin Griffin have a right to say what they want, but they have right to say what they want on a stage in front of one of the most prestigious student bodies in the entire world. The former may be true, but the latter seems to be, at best, a dubious claim and, at worst, a perversion of the concept of free speech.

The fact of the matter is that for the Oxford Union to invite David Irving and Kevin Griffin to speak at one of its events is to bestow its institutional prestige upon them and the ideas they represent. To believe otherwise takes an extraordinary degree of naivetè.

In response to continued criticism the Oxford Union launched a two-part defensive strategy. First, as Mr. Tryl argues in the letter cited above, “it is my belief that pushing the views of these people underground achieves nothing.” This begs the question: should the fact that David Irving’s work has been very widely discredited, matter to an academic institution? The answer, contra-Tryl, is an emphatic “yes.” After all, on what basis could one argue that honoring David Irving with a plum invite to an event hosted by the Oxford Union will enhance an Oxford student’s education? As James Kirchick recently put it, “Columbia’s physics department would never host a speech by a member of the Flat Earth Society, nor should it.” The Oxford Union has a responsibility to respect David Irving’s free speech, not enlarge his audience.

This brings us to the Union’s next argument. In an interview with the Guardian, Mr. Tryl attempted to deflect criticism as follows, “the Oxford Union is famous for is commitment to free speech and although I do think these people have awful and abhorrent views I do think Oxford students are intelligent enough to challenge and ridicule them.”

This is a perplexing argument, to say the least.

Seemingly, Mr. Tryl agrees that David Irving and Kevin Griffin have absolutely nothing of intellectual substance to contribute to Oxford students. What, then, is the purpose of inviting them to speak? The answer, according to Mr. Tryl, is so that students can “ridicule” them. This is reprehensible and in terrible bad taste. How is dragging Kevin Griffin to St. Michael’s Street just so he can be spit on by Oxford students at all productive? It isn’t courteous, it doesn’t serve an educational purpose, and it certainly does not advance the cause of free speech.

As far as David Irving is concerned, the only possible defense of the Oxford Union’s conduct is that he is being invited to the Free Speech Forum only because of his perspective on free speech.

But surely, if Oxford students are “intelligent enough to challenge and ridicule [Irving],” presumably they are intelligent enough to pick up a newspaper and learn about Irving themselves, without the Oxford Union having to resort to glorifying a neo-Nazi.