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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

How I generally approach the “no platforming” issue at universities, other

With all the furore about students “no platforming” those whom they dislike, for whatever reasons, it is worth recalling that a core problem for libertarians is that while making universities fully private, and thereby removing this behaviour as a public policy issue requiring political interference or comment, would be an answer to a degree, it is unlikely to happen any time soon. Also, even if universities were all private, such as the UK’s University of Buckingham, there is still a good case for the owners of said to make the case that universities aren’t, if they deserve the title of universities, meant to be “safe places”. I thought about the point when reading a recent Facebook comment and I wrote this:

Universities are funded, on the whole in countries such as the UK, by taxpayers, and via loans, the students. Now, if we had a purely free market in higher ed, then the institutions could, conceivably, set their own rules about debates and whatnot. (Vive la difference, etc.) But even if they did, the people running a university worthy of that term realise that one of the key reasons for attending a uni in the first place, however it is owned, is to broaden the mind and come into contact with debate, to learn how to debate, how to identify errors and problems, and so on. And these “no platform” people, even if they think they are liberal, have no conception of what a liberal education really means. Of course, if a private debating society wants to make it clear up front that it will not invite persons for various reasons, it can of course do what it likes, in the same way that an editor of a newspaper can choose to run letters or not, to moderate blog comments, or not. A journalist is not obliged to print letters from people that might be libellous, for instance. In the current state-run context of academies, however, taxpayers are entitled to expect that universities and other places respect free expression as a default position, subject only to the avoidance of speech deemed threatening to public order as defined under English Common Law and where specific threats are issued against people. (Hopefully those caveats are pretty tight for the purposes of argument.)

I like this quote, expressed with usual diamond-hard clarity, by Ayn Rand, on free speech and what it does and does not involve:

While people are clamoring about “economic rights,” the concept of political rights is vanishing. It is forgotten that the right of free speech means the freedom to advocate one’s views and to bear the possible consequences, including disagreement with others, opposition, unpopularity and lack of support. The political function of “the right of free speech” is to protect dissenters and unpopular minorities from forcible suppression—not to guarantee them the support, advantages and rewards of a popularity they have not gained.

The Bill of Rights reads: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . . .” It does not demand that private citizens provide a microphone for the man who advocates their destruction, or a passkey for the burglar who seeks to rob them, or a knife for the murderer who wants to cut their throats.

With tax-funded universities, though, there is the case of whether such an organisation should ban, say, a free market radical like the late Miss Rand from speaking, on the grounds that she “advocates their destruction”. Or should a current UK university, funded as they are, host speakers who are, for example, preachers of hate against Jews, Americans, white males, entrepreneurs, scientists, logicians, or indeed any other of the sort of persons who are probably on the receiving end of the current “safe spaces” stuff. Should we wait for such places to be privatized while this situation persists? My brief answer is that the default setting must be let people of any kind speak on a taxpayer-funded academy unless the persons so speaking are clearly and identifiably at war with a country (such as a figure who is, or has, served in ISIS, or some other hostile force). I am not sure this is a very clear answer, though, because defining “at war” clearly varies.

Meanwhile, the madness continues, such as against the difficulty of STEM subjects.

Finally, for some light relief, as a pisstake on university life that is timeless, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim is a great read.


22 comments to How I generally approach the “no platforming” issue at universities, other

  • Alisa

    Should we wait for such places to be privatized

    Not to disagree with anything in your post, Jonathan, but if there is anything we should wait for in this context, is for universities as we know them to go the way of the dinosaurs and the rotary phones.

  • Thailover

    It should be publically noted and well understood that “safe spaces” and “triggers” pertain only to people with mental and emotional disabilities. Despite the best efforts of leftists in the west to turn universities into mental institutions, or “nervous hospitals”, they’re not.

    We need to make it clear that people who are offended by freedom deserve all the credit they’re due…none.

    And we should also point out that it’s THEY who are the cry-bullies, not the people talking sense and exposing their brainless nonsense. When THEY are being terrorists and trying to destroy people, expose them and call the police.

  • QET

    I fear there is a misapprehension about all this. The kids doing all of the “no platforming” and their faculty and administration enablers (and controllers) are not hapless ignorant confused individuals who just need to be patiently pedagogied into a correct appreciation of what universities are and are not places for, of the value of “free and open debate” etc etc. No, it is absolutely a mistake to take these people at their word, to accept the pretexts they offer for their actions. They are disrupting, shouting down and shutting down speakers because they can. Being kids, they have lots of energy and are looking for satisfying ways in which to discharge it. It is will to power, and that’s all it is. So the only way to address the situation and right the ship, as it were, is to oppose an equally resolute will to theirs. Wringing hands and gnashing teeth over how best to engage these people in a dialogue about the value of exchanging ideas is utter foolishness.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Well, the fact is that insofar as Unis are funded by the Government (taxpayers’ money notwithstanding), the Unis are arguably government agencies, de facto. If one decides that’s the correct take, then if the country has some legally-enshrined (whether written or not) First Amendment, it cannot prohibit dissenters from dissenting nor silencers from silencing, however raucously. So the Uni becomes the Public Square (or, for those familiar with Chicago, Bughouse Square).

    It can, however, keep the peace, just as municipal government is supposed to keep the peace in the public square.

    In the analogous case, there is room for debate as to just what constitutes keeping the peace. Does mere “raucous silencing” count as a Public Nuisance, properly prohibited by ordinance? Or does it have to rise to the level of vandalizing of “public property” (c.f. Occupy)? Or does it not kick in till there is physical aggression (shoving, hitting, whatever) involved?

    In the case of the Uni, wouldn’t sh***y but non-physical behavior amount to Obstruction of Business (not that I suppose there is such a statute anywhere in the known universe, but perhaps you see what I mean)? Or consider the alleged (and I think substantiated) harassment and intimidation of lending institutions by Acorn operatives, in order to intimidate them into signing onto the subprime-mortgage business, never mind credit scores, income, ability to pay, yadayada. I suppose we all think such tactics are execrable, and that the institutions have the moral if not the legal right to throw them out and have them charged with trespass (unless they’re explicitly made “welcome,” of course).

    If the audience at a lecture at a university, be it a regular course lecture or an extracurricular event, engages in similar intimidating behavior, doesn’t this amount to interfering with the uni’s right to conduct business as it sees fit, regardless of the issue of how it’s supported financially?

    Anyhow, students behaving like four-year-old bullies was nothing new even in the ’60’s, as the phenomenon had a long and ignoble history on the Continent (or so I understand); but it surely became first acceptable and then, in some quarters anyhow, argued as legally defensible, as a result of the ’60’s and ’70’s universities’ administrators lack of moral self-confidence and result lack of willingness to discipline offending students.

    Which lack was part of the then-, and now-, current zeitgeist, as well as the fact that they were probably to some extent in a state of moral confusion due to their own miseducation at the hands of their own teachers….

    In the case of Buckingham University (which I assume still is actually a voluntarily-supported venue under whose auspices various speakers provide free-to-the-public lectures on assorted topics, and which grants no degrees) and the Ford Hall Forum, it seems to me that they have every right to insist on decorous behavior by the audience. And that they get to define “decorous behaviour.” (I see no reason to be consistent about international issues of orthography.) On the other hand, I doubt that this position is highly contentious among Samizdatistas. Still, thoroughness.

    So, is the average government-supported university properly a Quango? What about a private university whose government funding comes from grants, rather than being in itself a government-supported project? And getting to Johnathan’s issue, what are rights, duties, and privileges of any Quango in the matter of unalloyed self-governance?

    Naturally, one must find your Facebook posting to be right on, Johnathan. And, of course, your issue. :>)

    * * *

    Alisa, kindly do not disparage rotary phones. Rotaries rock, as they represent the first great step up from the hand-crack style, up with which I grew (and which are even more fun to use than rotaries — give those upper-arm muscles a good workout, and make fun noise to boot). Although they lack the sound FX of the cranked phone, at least they beat out those silly pushbutton numbers; granted that the initial styles of these with keys large enough (a) to see and (b) to be usable by those whose digits are larger than Barbie’s were not the absolute worst. But nowadays, the stupid cell-phones are so small that the phone’s earpiece and mouthpiece are not simultaneously available to the user. And you can’t cradle them between your cheek and your shoulder as you may with an old-fashioned handset. They fall out of or are picked from your purse or pocket, forgotten at Mickey D’s or the Bloomingdale’s or Tesco or the laundromat, or end up washed out to sea or drowned in the bathtub (because everybody knows it’s absolutely unthinkable not to bring your phone to the tub, or the shower, with you). We hates them, my precioussss, yessss we doessss. Except when Phoning Home to ask the Young Miss if we need milk, of course.

    Here endeth today’s rant. It was fun. For me anyway. 😉

  • The Stigler

    The problem is that I feel that university debates and people’s concern about them are just like a divorced couple fighting over the house that’s been burnt down.

    These places used to matter as the hotbeds of debates. It was where intellectual ideas were exchanged. But really, we’ve got the internet for that, and the whole idea of university debates today is just rather quaint, like the opening of parliament, or vinyl records.

    And much like gallery art and theatre, as they have been replaced by other forms, so the vacuum has been filled with madness. The debate features on the one side, some charmless anti-pornography lesbian feminist, or an apologist for religious murder or a member of the race industry that thinks that black people today have it no better than in the Antebellum. None of these people are worth debating, nor is it worth trying to convince an audience that would turn up and listen to one of these morons.

  • Alisa

    But nowadays, the stupid cell-phones are so small that the phone’s earpiece and mouthpiece are not simultaneously available to the user.

    What? Mine has a 6″ screen and I watch movies on it. But I rarely use it as a phone per se, never liked talking on the phone much anyway. And no offense was meant to rotaries, the technical idea of which I always found very appealing.

    Seriously though, seeing as Universities are no longer serving as institutions of real education (save for those few schools and departments that still do), I see no reason to treat them as anything other than political organizations.

  • Alisa

    IOW, what Stigler said.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Alisa, I only spoke in defense of rotaries because I could. (And, well, because personally I don’t hate them. And they feel like Home, since I spent probably >35 years connected to the World Outside via rotary. And I never, ever had a problem with misbehaviour by a rotary phone.) And I’m not mad about cell phones, except for use in emergencies. Anyway, as I’m sure you know, my “rant” was tongue-in-cheek, and I was grateful to you for affording me the opportunity excuse. 🙂

    However, seriously: Your cell phone has a 6″ screen? It must cover half your face when you’re talking! Oh, unless you use Bluetooth or something, and an earbud-mike ensemble? Or use it on speaker-phone? Or something?

    I hope you can tell from this that I am completely up-to-date on the latest in voice-comm technology available to the general public. (Unless — you’re not secretly with the crack Tuvalu Intelligence Service, are you?)

  • Nicholas (Excentrality!) Gray

    I expect Internet courses and programs to supercede Unies, just as cars have superceded horses. Perhaps Unies might have a role as a testing center for all those students, but I think their share of resources will shrink- but not disappear! We’ve had electric lights for over a century, and we still have candles and candleshops!

  • Eric

    Meanwhile, the madness continues, such as against the difficulty of STEM subjects.

    That push was inevitable once universities became employment gatekeepers. The credential has become far more important than anything you actually learn a school, outside a handful of disciplines like medicine and certain types of engineering. Of course various elements of the left will push for easier credentials – they would like to see their existing control over who gets in to universities extended to control over who gets credentials. Once you control the credentials (which they already do for teaching and law) you can make sure only people who think the way you do can get jobs.

    I’m reminded of a story out of New York a few years back in which a prospective teacher was denied teaching credentials because he refused to “commit to social justice”. Wouldn’t it be nice, they think, if only people who “commit to social justice” were able to get jobs?

  • JB

    How I generally approach the SJW issue:



  • Mr Ed

    We’ve had electric lights for over a century, and we still have candles and candleshops!

    But they sell candles that look and often smell nice, Universities have students.

  • Legally the titular ownership is irrelevant. A pub is privately owned but even then you still can’t smoke by law (a different kid of “safe space”). In a real sense the funding is not the issue. It ought to be but it isn’t. Hell’s teeth. When my wife set-up as a self-employed translator working from home the Ministry sent her a load of “No Smoking” signs for our back bedroom which she’d set-up as an office. Because, you see, it was now a “workspace”. That nobody else ever turned-up there was irrelevant (translation pretty much is international by definition and of course done these days via the internet*). She used to smoke back then but was technically breaking the law. My point is ownership or legally having use of property makes no difference. We’d like to think it was, “My gaff, my rules” and so it should be but it isn’t.

    This is similar to section 63 of the criminal justice and immigration act which bans “violent and extreme” pornography. It is deliberately loosely worded so is essentially an enabling act and also a strict liability. If you draw something the beak don’t like then you’re goin’ dahn. I guess that means to the same cell as Hieronymous Bosch but there you go. And that is even if it is purely for your own fun. There is no mention of attempting to distribute hence the strict liabilty.

    My point is not a “smoking perverts charter” but I think it is naive to think private property is the answer. Private property rights are the answer but they are currently being bulldozered (literally in the case of compulsory purchase/ eminent domain) at an epic rate. Look at the Hell on over Dave Cameron’s finances. That is so through the Looking Glass. I mean nobody said he’s done anything at all illegal. It is all too ludicrous.

    *Fourth hand smoke. It travels down the wires you know. Fibre optics have made this worse and there is growing evidence it can even traverse satellite links. Yes, you have a cheroot in Seattle then someone gets cancer in Singapore.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Or even on Aldebaran, Nick. Wormholes and whatnot, you know, and possibly every one of them also encloses a cyberspatial wormhole.

    After all, everything is connected with everything else. Even I have said that, and what’s more I believe it.

    On the other hand, call me callous distant and aloof, but I can’t get too exercised about subjecting the Alebaranians to 4th-hand cigarette smoke. Now burning leaves, that’s another matter.

    Good point about the importance of (private) property rights. Even during the Third Reich they had “private property,” depending on your definition of “private,” “property,” and “private property”; but seem to have been a might short on the concept of the rights properly attached thereto.

  • Alisa

    OK, Ed nails the thread – we can all go home now 😀

    Julie, yes, 6″ – but I rarely use it as an actual phone. I mostly talk to people by typing or over pancakes 😀

  • RRS

    I don’t recall that I have posted the following here before, but, if so, my apologies.

    Post-secondary learning facilities came into being and developed as social organizations to meet and serve social “needs.” These organizations have been designated “instruments.”

    “These organizations, consisting largely of personal relationships, we shall call we shall call “instruments” as long as they achieve the purpose of the [social need] level with relative effectiveness. But every such social instrument tends to become an “institution.” This means it takes on a life and purposes of its own distinct from the purpose of the level; in consequence, the purpose of that level is achieved with decreasing effectiveness. In fact, it can be stated as a rule of history that – ‘all social instruments tend to become institutions.’

    “Every instrument consists of people organized in relationships to one another. As the instrument becomes an institution, these relationships become ends in themselves to the detriment of the ends of the whole organization.”

    Carroll Quigley, “The Evolution of Civilizations” (1961)
    (pp.101,102) [Liberty Fund Edition 1979]

    There is perhaps no better example of that “rule of history” than the institution that has formed into our educational “system” which developed from the social need to provide learning facilities to on-coming generations.

    That “relationships become ends in themselves” is demonstrated in the ever narrowing conformities engendered by the self-perpetuation of hierarchies in post- secondary institutions.

    Sadly, the cavil about STEM courses has a valid basis. There is the history of the self-perpetuation of the hierarchy of “Educators;” reflected in the increasing conformities within faculties, the uses of jargon, “grading” (selection) methods, etc..

    It serves the interests of those hierarchies to continue the gestation processes of what has become increasingly deferred maturity; often becoming asymptotic.

  • John B


    As a libertarian and free marketer, I would like to point out the point being missed.

    Students should pay for their own tuition, then they have an incentive to make best use of the educational opportunities and broaden their minds and enter into challenging debate.

    If they choose not to do so, then it is their money and they are free to waste it how they please.

    If they have no skin in the game, the incentive is missing.

    It would also exclude the deadheads who are at ‘uni’ who got in because standards have been lowered to meet the 50% quota set my Eminence Blair.

    Paying their own way would mean that only those who really wanted it would go as it would not be a free ride. This would cut numbers applying, and competition for students would drive up standards in the institutions. It would also cut the number of graduates, and as everyone knows when supply falls prices go up, so post-graduate pay would increase helping pay back tuition loans.

    Ah yes the ubiquitous poor. ‘The poor’ is an abstract and a political vote-catching term. Many ‘poor’ if clever enough can get grants from industry, can borrow like the ‘not-poor’ or maybe there are not that many ‘poor’ who want to go to ‘uni’… it being the aspiration of the political Left for them, rather than their own.

    But anyway, as the man says, there are no solutions just trade-offs and if the trade-off for all round better quality of university education, graduates and post-graduate pay is that some of the ‘poor’ miss out, then so be it.

  • RRS

    “. . . competition for students would drive up standards in the institutions.”

    Abend So ! What would raise the quality of guidance to meet those better standards of learning?

    One hesitates to use the term “better teachers,” when learning rather than being “taught” is a post secondary objective.

  • Paul Marks

    If universities were 100% voluntarily funded (no government backed “student loans” and so on) censorship (“no platform” and the rest of the P.C. Critical Theory stuff) would still be evil.

    However, it would be a political matter – it would just be those who controlled entirely private and voluntary universities behaving badly (wickedly). And that is no concern of the Sword of State – as long as no force or fraud is used.


    Once on Pound of tax money is used (in any way) “no platform” and all the rest of it becomes a political matter.

    Universities must be told that there will be more tax money (in any way) for them or their students while such vile practices persist.

    “You are violating our freedom to run the university in the way we see fit”.

    Then voluntarily give up all tax money – for yourselves and your students.

    Still we are dealing with a Conservative Party government that still had not even “defunded” the leftist playpens called “Student Unions”.

    That has been (sort of) promised since 1979.

    I suppose I am going to die still waiting for even this minor reform (the end of money to “student unions”) to happen.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Alisa, your comment resonates strangely with me. Especially the part with the P-word. 😉

  • jsallison

    Mr Ed at 6:01am. I think the word you’re looking for is “students”. That would be *with* quotes. Who knew all those bulletin board posts back in 300 baud modem days would be so useful?

  • Nicholas (Excentrality!) Gray

    Q. How many Uni students would it take to change a light bulb?

    A. They don’t want to change a light bulb- they want to change the world!!!