Freedom of speech. It is mentioned time and time again as one of the inalienable rights of man. But is it a right? Can speech be censored? Should there be limits on what we can say?
The subject has recently been in the news again. As I am sure you have heard, Nick Griffin, the leader of the far-right British National Party, and David Irving, a controversial historian who was jailed in Austria for Holocaust denial (and also a former student of Imperial College) have been invited to a debate at Oxford Union tonight. The subject of the debate is, ironically enough, freedom of speech. The invitation has caused controversy: protests are planned for tonight by anti-fascism groups, and several other invitees to the debate, such as the defence secretary Des Browne are boycotting it.
The invitations are at best naïve by the Oxford Union debating society, and are at worst a shameless stunt to get publicity for power hungry Oxford wannabe politicians. The entire debate has turned into a farce and has divided the society. As one insider, speaking about Oxford Union president Luke Tryl (who is said to see himself as a future prime minister) "He has sacrificed so many great guests, simply for the sake of a fascist and a Holocaust denier to speak."
Nick Griffin and David Irving have the right to say or publish what they like, however wrong it is. But they should not be allowed to use a world renowned establishment as a front for their views. Putting them on the same platform as reputable MPs only gives creditability to their views. I can think of nothing they could offer towards a debate on free speech, except maybe to offer them up as an example of why it is not always a good thing to have. Oxford Union needs to have a good look at themselves, and ask themselves what they were thinking when they invited them.
It should be taken into account that withdrawing the invitations of Nick Griffin and David Irving now would be playing into their hands. They would appear of martyrs to their supporters, which is exactly as they would like to appear. It is better to get them out into the open, where the rest of the world can hear how ridiculous they are. In an open debating forum they would not stand a chance. It would be better to let them say their piece, make their points, and finish the whole mess as soon as possible.