'INVITATION TO SPEAK IS A PRIVILEGE – NOT A RIGHT'
By Julian Lewis
Southern Daily Echo – 18 December 2007
My resignation from the Oxford Union debating society after 37 years’ membership, has predictably been interpreted by some people as wishing to deny free speech to Holocaust denier David Irving and also to the leader of the extremist British National Party, Nick Griffin.
In reality, my resignation letter (accessible in full in the Essays & Topics section of my website) explicitly stated:
"No-one denies that even the most unpleasant people must be allowed to say what they like within the limits imposed by law. No-one denies that a private debating society is at liberty to invite anyone it selects, similarly within the law."
However, the right of free speech does not confer a right of access to privileged platforms from prestige organisations. Being invited to the Oxford Union is a privilege, not a right, just as writing a column for the Daily Echo is a privilege, not a right. I may have missed it, but I have not noticed the Echo offering either the BNP or David Irving a platform in the paper for their views – presumably, this is because it thinks it would be inappropriate to do so.
The fact that the Union has the legal right to offer a platform to scoundrels does not make it any less shameful that its officers chose to do so, in what was clearly a bid for headlines and notoriety.
Anyone who wishes to examine and assess the views of Irving and Griffin can do this in seconds by courtesy of their extensive internet sites or, in greater depth, by purchasing their numerous publications. Am I denying them free speech by declining to put links to their websites on the relevant page of my own? Are local bookshops or newsagents which decline to stock extremist publications also censoring these dreadful people? Of course not.
Sadly, the Union has now enabled them to claim that, if they are good enough to be hosted in Oxford, they are entitled to privileged platforms everywhere else. Blatant extremists have been given a massive political boost.