The Oxford Union, the world-famous private debating society (not to be confused with the student union), has been courting controversy. The current President, Luke Tryl, has organised a forum for 26 November, on the subject "Even extremists should be entitled to free speech" - and he's invited two extremists along for the ride. Nick Griffin, leader of the openly racist British National Party, and David Irving, the discredited pseudo-historian and Holocaust denier, have been asked to speak.
The event has caused a huge amount of controversy. The Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) and Oxford University Jewish Society (JSoc) are very strongly against the invitation, and members have set up Facebook groups calling for the event to be scrapped. The NUS and Unite Against Fascism are campaigning for the invitation to be withdrawn.
And I think they're completely wrong.
If free speech is to mean anything, it has to apply to everyone - and not just to nice people. Once you start restricting people's right to debate ideas in public, you're going down a very dangerous road. The only limits to free speech should be against incitement to violence and discrimination - and we already have robust laws for that.
Like the overwhelming majority of Oxford students, I abhor the BNP. I've gone out to campaign against them in local elections. And as a Jew whose great-grandparents fled from the Nazis, I condemn Holocaust denial as a disgusting perversion of history. But I believe the best way to beat racism and deceit is to tackle them head on in open debate, where they will crumble. Silencing Griffin and Irving will only make them martyrs; but if they’re subjected to proper scrutiny, they can be beaten.
To try and counter OUSU and JSoc’s stance, I’ve set up a Facebook group of my own – you can join it here. Over 350 students are members so far, which is encouraging.
Quite a few JSoc and OUSU antagonists have "joined" my group as well, and are using the discussion board to make their case against me. This sarcastic little number is particularly noteworthy: "If only had there been some good debates at the time, perhaps the Holocaust would not have happened? Millions were not murdered because their arguments were not good enough ..."
It goes to show just how completely these people have missed the point. Millions were murdered because the Nazis arbitrarily decided that some people are different; that some people deserve fewer rights than others; that some people deserve to be killed. It's precisely for that reason that we have a concept of universal human rights - basic entitlements that people can't take away from us just because they don't like us.
The supreme irony of the situation is this: it is only because they have the human right of free speech that the JSoc crowd are able to protest against Griffin and Irving in the first place. As my friend Charlie Cooke points out, “It's like holding up Parliament with an assault rifle to force them to ban firearms.”
I’m going to stick my neck out here: those who are trying to shut down this free speech forum are actually more dangerous than either Griffin or Irving. At least the controversial duo hold idiotic, racist and anti-semitic positions, which most people can see straight through. But the useful idiots from JSoc are intelligent, genuinely well-meaning students from Britain's top university, who are asking in all sincerity for our most fundamental human right to be taken away. I know which one of those viewpoints does more damage to society!
It's funny really - JSoc (of which I'm usually proud to be a member) was very vocal about free speech last term, when the ridiculous proposal for an academic boycott of Israel was hitting the headlines. Now that we're talking about the free speech of extremists, rather than Israeli teachers, JSoc has quickly come to the conclusion that free speech needs to be limited, and that they get to decide just what the limits are. The hypocrisy of their about-turn is breathtaking.
The acid test of a true supporter of free speech is this: are you prepared to stand up for the rights of everyone, or just those people you find palatable? It's intellectually very easy to defend mainstream, decent people. It doesn't take huge moral courage to stand up for brave Burmese monks, for politically-blameless Israeli physicists, or for dissident Chinese bloggers. But can you stand up for two truly odious men, who want to exercise, within the limits of the law, exactly the same fundamental rights as everyone else?
If the answer is no, then you are only a fairweather friend of our civil liberties.