Why Amber Rudd should not have been ‘no-platformed’

There was outcry earlier this month after the Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd was ‘no-platformed’ from an event at Oxford University hosted by the UN Women Oxford UK society. Ms Rudd accused the society of attempting to shut down free speech, urging members ‘to stop hiding and start engaging’. This incident is just one of many to have raised questions about the curtailment of free speech on University campuses, adding fuel to a debate increasingly described as a ‘culture war’ between predominantly left-wing student bodies and right-wing activists.

The primary reason given by the society for their decision was Ms Rudd’s involvement in the Windrush scandal which forced her to resign as Home Secretary in 2018. There is no denying that by enforcing the ‘hostile environment’ policy started by her predecessor Theresa May, Ms Rudd was complicit in the enormous injustice done to the Windrush Generation, which a recent independent report described as being ‘consistent with some elements…of institutional racism’. So while Ms Rudd is entitled to describe the decision to ‘no-platform’ her as ‘rude’, she might consider that it was far more than ‘rude’ to unlawfully deport thousands of people from their home country. It is clear who the real victims are here.

Ms Rudd has been no friend to the intersectional feminist movement

Furthermore, when considering the negative impact her policies have had on the lives of women of colour, it is surprising that the invitation to speak was even extended in the first place; Ms Rudd has been no friend to the intersectional feminist movement.

Students also took issue with the format of the event, as they were uncertain as to whether they would be allowed to challenge the Former Home Secretary on her political track record. It is important to acknowledge that free speech can never be a one-way street –  student voices must also be allowed to express an opinion.

However, although the initial invitation to Ms Rudd was arguably ill-advised, and despite her failings as Home Secretary, she should not have been ‘no-platformed’. It is a cornerstone of every democracy that a wide range of views can be expressed without fear of censure, and it is vital that our Universities reflect the open society in which we would wish to live. Once invited, Ms Rudd had every right to speak. It is true that this right is not without limits; would have been a demonstrably unsuitable choice of speaker for such an event. But perhaps, as a Former Minister for Women and Equalities in a male-dominated government, Ms Rudd would have brought an important and interesting contribution to an event celebrating International Women’s Day. We will never know.

It is a cornerstone of every democracy that a wide range of views can be expressed

But just as much as Ms Rudd should have been allowed to speak, no student should be forced to listen. If there was to be no way for students to robustly challenge her during the event, a mass walk-out would have been a far more effective form of protest. That way there would have been doubt as to who owned the moral high-ground.

There is perhaps truth in the argument that with such a large conventional and social media presence, Ms Rudd’s exclusion from the event hardly represented a significant curtailment of her freedom of speech. But a more significant problem with ‘no-platforming’ relates to how such decisions can be weaponised, particularly by the right-wing press, overshadowing far more serious threats to free speech on University campuses.

For example, between 2017 and 2019, Durham University paid out more than £175,000 to silence student complaints using non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). This is part of a worrying trend across the UK, where 45 universities have paid out a total of £1.3 million through such agreements since 2016. Therefore, by allowing incidents such as the ‘no-platforming’ of Ms Rudd to dominate the media cycle, we do a disservice to all the student voices which can now never be heard.

Yes, Ms Rudd should not have been ‘no-platformed’. But no, that does not mean that the concerns raised by the students who made the decision are not legitimate. More importantly, before pundits and commentators howl at the injustice of denying high-profile figures a tiny part of their platform, they should perhaps first consider standing up for all those who have truly been silenced on University campuses.

Photography: UK Parliament via Gov.uk

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