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British ‘De-Platforming’ Of MILO Should Put Country’s Speech Laws On Notice

If you want to “de-platform” (an ugly verb for an ugly thing) someone in the UK then you need only brandish this pathetically-dull blade:

Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986 (POA) ‘makes it an offence for a person to use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, alarm or distress. This can have serious implications on peaceful protestors and others exercising their freedom of expression, as someone who uses insulting language that might distress another were they to hear it could be guilty of an offence.’

When I quoted Section 4 to Milo Yiannopoulos, he instantly replied, “This is a law I break by breathing.”

No stranger to having platforms—often at distinguished universities—dissolve beneath his feet since Trump’s astonishing victory in the US election, Milo has had to find other ways to breathe offense into the world and pixels seem to supply a platform that never vanishes. The Internet is Milo’s platform. He shall not want.

Here is a bit more context for what the politically-engaged students at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys (lots of girls there too in the enormous Sixth Form) are now calling Milogate.

In early September the Headteacher at Simon Langton told me that a former student from the school had not only made good as a professional journalist, but had also recently enjoyed signal notoriety on his Dangerous Faggot Tour of US universities. The Headteacher suggested that I might like to invite Milo Yiannopoulos to the school to give a talk to our Sixth Form, hundreds of whom are being trained in history, philosophy, literature and, especially, politics. They are a keen and fractious bunch and love to tangle with invited speakers in the Q & A.

I invited Milo and later in the autumn we set the date for 22 November, in The Hall at Simon Langton. As that fateful day approached, the media, former students, academics and the National Union of Teachers (NUT) suddenly discovered our giving a platform to Milo. All hell broke loose. But all heaven broke loose, too. The great stir of the last week has helped to launch a public debate on free speech that is long overdue in the UK.

A few days before the scheduled talk the Department of Education got into the game. The school received an email message from the Investigations Unit of the Counter-Extremism Division. They wanted to know if Milo had been properly vetted and did we really think this invitation was a good idea. They were concerned that Milo’s talk might contravene the school’s responsibility to “uphold British values.” One hopes those values include free speech and open debate. The Head of School’s subsequent phone call with the Department for Education suggested that their note was less ominous than perfunctory, but the very name of the unit made one wonder if the government was not going to intervene. The DfE supplied no rules or regulations about proper vetting.

In fact, I had read many of Milo’s journalistic pieces, listened to his podcasts and watched hours of his You Tube videos, especially those featuring him at US universities. Is that proper vetting? Is that enough to “platform” him? Having no access to other sources of information (FBI files?), I had no other means by which to estimate the fitness of Milo as a speaker. Knowing full well the maturity and political acumen of our Sixth Form students, I decided that they could handle Milo’s act and his ideas and would also be in a position to challenge his “platform.”

And then the flood of emails poured in from the community and from the world. Hundreds of messages appeared on our monitors either celebrating the school’s bravery in allowing so controversial a figure to speak to secondary school students, or condemning the school and its leadership for allowing an “extremist” and “white nationalist” and—of course—“fascist” to contaminate the hearts and souls of “children.” The celebratory messages were heartening and made some of us wish we had gone ahead with the event.

But the condemnatory emails we received were so vile, truculent and threatening that we began to worry for the safety of the students. We had already set up extra security for the event, but what if some of these truly menacing people actually showed up at the school? The pastoral care of the students began to loom large as one ugly email after another began to dominate the responses we received. But surely it is a dire sign when so much security must be in place to allow Milo to voice his views. Is it not in fact a sign of profound cultural insecurity that so much security is involved? That is a worrying paradox.

Deciding to rescind our invitation to Milo was a complex, tormented and divisive moment. I wanted to send out the press release I had written that stated our refusal to cancel the event. But the Headteacher had the final word. For many years he has been the school’s faithful steward and its educational visionary and I fully supported his decision to cancel. He sees more angles than I can see and has to deal with more of the fallout from any decision we make. Some of the emails we received from people well outside the Langton were vaguely menacing.

One begins to wonder who are the “extremists”—the incendiary but de-platformed speakers or those who would actually threaten a school with violent protest? It is worth recalling the attempted de-platforming of Germaine Greer by a students’ union for—some claimed—a lack of understanding of “trans” issues despite her unflagging service to feminism for her entire life. Is not that denial of free speech an extreme reaction?

You would have thought that the decision to cancel the event would have calmed the storm. On the contrary. The news frenzy culminated in the lead columns of The Times and of The Financial Times, the story now being that the government had nefariously shut down Milo. That is an exaggerated and reductive account of what happened but it is true we felt pressured to give some kind of account for the invitation to Milo. Could the government sack the lot of us?

Quick to detect hypocrisy, Milo dealt with the bad news about the cancellation by posting on Facebook: “Perhaps if I’d called the speech “MUSLIMS ARE AWESOME!” they’d have left us alone. Disgusted.” No matter what one thinks of Milo’s penchant for playing the humourist-provocateur, it is hard for anyone who defends the principle of free speech not to share his moral outrage. What are people so afraid of? Why must all speeches given at all schools represent some narrowly-conceived, smugly-left, unctuously-academic orthodoxy.

Not to be outflanked without a fight, hundreds of students at Simon Langton signed an open letter stating their opposition to the de-platforming. Breitbart published their views on 22 November and the world got to see just how brilliant, tough-minded and—more to the point—open-minded the students at this school really are. The media began to celebrate the students and they gave radio interviews and appeared on the UK television’s Victoria Derbyshire Show.

It was as if the students had intuitively absorbed the most famous sentences from Milton’s Areopagitica: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”  The students wanted to test their mettle against their so-called adversary. They were welcoming the “dust and heat” of an encounter with Milo. They were and are refusing to slink away from him and I suspect their efforts will come to fruition.

Most Langton students are committed to free speech and open debate and badly want to allow Milo his platform at the school or somewhere else. Immensely to their credit, they are also producing a slender volume of ten or so essays presenting their views—which are not at all in agreement—about the de-platforming of Milo. They hope to publish this book in the new year.

The Langton may have had good reasons, on this one occasion, to “de-platform” Milo, but the fallout from the decision has created a fire-storm of protest. A debate about free speech is brewing in the UK and the next time Milo shows up to be provokingly offensive, I suspect he will have more breathing room. Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986 will be imperilled—and it should be.

James Soderholm is Associate Lecturer at the University of Kent and Professor of Humanities at Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, in Canterbury, UK.  He can be contacted at jpsoderholm@gmail.com

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