This is a bit of a long one, apologies... but useful think to set the record straight.
About a week ago, I was sent the text of a letter about the problem of "no platforming" in universities, specifically in relation to divergent, unpopular, and may well be wrong, feminist views, especially in relation to sex workers and the trans community. In fact I had one from the organiser of the letter, and another from an academic colleague.
I have a very clear, long held view on this (which may not of course be right): that 'no platforming' unpopular views is counter productive, discourages debate and the due dissection of error, and pushes views one would like to contest openly underground, where they may well flourish better than if exposed to the clear light of argument (which is one of the things that universities are for).
This is not a simple argument about free speech, which is much too fuzzy a concept to be much use honestly. No one really believes that we have a right to totally free speech, except some idiots on the web who use the phrase to justify anything from death threats down. And everyone reckons there are some difficult cases (and the subject of this letter may have been one of those). But what I would stand by, forever, would be the centrality of free debate in universities and elsewhere. As one e-mailer put it, in reference to questions of Germaine Greer's views on trans politics, "of course she can find another platform if she is disinvited from Cambridge, but we need her to DEBATE here". We should be in the business of subjecting all views, both those with which we agree and those with which we disagree, to public scrutiny. Free speech only means anything it is refers to views with which you disagree as well as agree -- else it's no more than a cabal.
Ok so I get sent the letter (text here). Why sign, why not? Well one thing is certain: at least one of the examples cited in such a letter will always be challenged or turn out to be more complicated. So you have to be clear that the big point transcends any one case. In this instance, it looks like the Smurthwaite example may not have been as it has been widely reported. But Julie Bindel (with whose views on this I disagree) certaintly has been no-platformed by NUS for some time. Greer was threatened with a disinvitation (I disagree with most of what she says too, but defend her right -- and our right -- to debate it). The Oxford abortion debate looks like another, which could well have been mentioned actually.
My worry about no platforming, as the letter clearly stated, is this:
"You do not have to agree with the views that are being silenced to find these tactics illiberal and undemocratic. Universities have a particular responsibility to resist this kind of bullying. We call on universities and other organisations to stand up to attempts at intimidation and affirm their support for the basic principles of democratic political exchange."
I was NOT signing up to an attack on the trans community. Nor was there any remote suggestion that I was.