Toby Young is always keen to promote the idea that free speech is under threat on university campuses. His frequent denunciations of instances, real or alleged, of “no-platforming” stoked an industry of pundits mourning the days when universities were a bastion of robust debate, and a perception of today’s students as the “snowflake generation”.
But my recent investigation for London Student has dealt a serious blow to the idea that vulnerable students have been using “no platform” policies to do away with what former Universities Minister Jo Johnson called “vigorous disagreement based on mutual respect.”
UCL has found itself caught in this debate before, when the students’ union banned the “Nietzsche Club”. Students had been found putting up posters stating that “equality is a false god”, and inviting students to discuss the fascist theorists Julius Evola and Alain de Benoist. After a brief media storm, the students’ union quietly reversed its decision.
Now we have learned about an event called the London Conference on Intelligence, which UCL says happened without its knowledge. It attracts white nationalists, misogynists and pseudo-academics. Not only did Toby Young attend this conference, but he boasted a few months later about how exclusive it was. The “invitation only” event was “like a meeting of Charter 77 in Václav Havel’s flat in Prague in the 1970s,” he told a room of academic psychologists.
Recounting how one attendee “begged” for his name not to be revealed, Young lamented the “reaction that any reference to between-group differences in IQ provokes”. For Young, it seems, free speech on campus includes the ability of white supremacists to discuss discredited racial theories. (He said he attended the London Conference on Intelligence as research for his later speech).
It is precisely for his defence of such free speech on campus that former Universities Minister Jo Johnson appointed Young to the Office for Students, the latest episode in a shameful saga of government interference in students’ right to self-defence. Young resigned on 9 January 2018, a day before we published our investigation.
It would be one thing if the government and the right-wing media were consistent in their support for free speech, but it is the Prevent programme, championed by the current government, which has done the most to restrict academic freedom. Accused of instilling “fear, suspicion, and censorship”, Prevent has been used to target student societies, monitor emails, and even censor students’ artwork. It has targeted Muslim students in particular, with funding based on the size of local Muslim populations and Muslims being 400 times more likely to be referred than non-Muslims.
“There are a lot of double standards we are seeing here,” says UCLU BAME Officer Ayo Olatunji. “White supremacists and neo-Nazis can hold events on campus unbothered, without showing up on the radar of UCL or Prevent, but when it comes to things like pro-Palestinian or Muslim-associated events, there are meticulous checks and interferences.”
The fact that the London Conference on Intelligence went ahead under the noses of UCL management for four consecutive years shows that Prevent is not perceived by those involved as a strategy for shutting down all kinds of extremism. That supporters of Prevent are often the first to criticise students for no platform policies goes to show that the issue is not whether all speech should be allowed, but what speech.
Ben Van Der Merwe is a student journalist.