Universities are vital entities for discussion and debate. This often can lead to tension when students with different identities challenge each other on sensitive topics. On the one hand, universities should uphold safe spaces for students, free from hate speech. On the other hand, universities must uphold the notion of free speech, as a human right.
Universities should also be able to prohibit those who danger and threaten these safe environments. This is why the NUS' 'no platform policy' is essential.
The policy prevents individuals or groups known to hold racist or fascist views from speaking at NUS events. It also ensures that NUS officers will not share a public platform with the individuals or groups identified to hold racist or fascist views.
The NUS' official no platform list contains six groups, including the English Defence League (EDL), and Hizb-ut-Tahrir, but individual unions and student groups can decide who they whish to 'no-platform'. Student unions such as the NUS have the authority to intervene in situations on behalf of students. They aim to promote student engagement with intellectual thought, but oppose those who attempt to utilise this freedom to attack and incite hatred towards others. The guidelines introduced by the NUS stop individuals and organisations with racists and xenophobic affiliations from sharing any platform with students. In turn, this prevents them hijacking concepts like free speech to promote and legitimatise their zealous hatred.
In a poll conducted by ComRes in 2016, around half of UK university students (54%) believed the NUS was right to enforce the 'no platform' policy against individuals they believe threaten the safe spaces of university students.
The policy has received even greater attention after it was recently revealed that University College London (UCL) had held a conference on eugenics, in which a white supremacist was invited to speak about the concept. It was also reported that other pseudo-academics, including a researcher who previously advocated for child abuse, also took part. This further highlights the need for safe spaces and the protection of students.
UCL responded to the reports, contending it was “investigating a potential breach of its room bookings process for events after being alerted to conferences on intelligence hosted by an honorary senior lecturer at UCL”. It further went on to say “Our records indicate the university was not informed in advance about the speakers and content of the conference series, as it should have been for the event to be allowed to go ahead.”
The no platform policy is designed to prevent the endorsement and expansion of hate groups. It used to stop these groups from recruiting and gaining members. It is not used to clamp down on free speech.