Nick Griffin and UCC
Ben English, of UCC's Government and Politics society writes in the Irish Times that the society has extended an invitation to Mr. Nick Griffin MEP, of the British National Party (BNP), to speak at the university in the new year. This invitation has been accepted.
Mr. English opines that this is in response to the withdrawal of an invitation to Griffin to speak in Trinity College, and that issues relating to free speech will be teased out during Griffin's appearance. Honest!
First, let's dispatch the usual talking points very quickly. Mr. English is entitled to invite whoever he wishes to, regardless of their credentials or qualifications to speak, in relation to any issue whatsoever. Hypothetically, inviting Coco the Clown to speak on quantitative easing is his prerogative.
It's a case of the is-ought problem though, is it not? UCC Gov. & Politics can invite anyone; they must be allowed to invite anyone. But should they invite just anyone? No, in short, is the answer to that.
Griffin's appearance is part of a tradition cultivated by another organisation in UCC, the Philosophical society, which issued abortive invitations to (convicted) Holocaust denier extraordinaire David Irving to speak on two separate occasions (in 2003 and 2008). Both instances were marred by threats of violence by both anti-fascists and white supremacists in the build-up, leading the university's governing body to cancel the invitations. The 2008 cancellation saw Irving instead catapulted onto primetime television for an appearance with Pat Kenny on RTÉ's Late Late show.
As private members' organisations, albeit one subsisting on student-funded contributions and publicly-run facilities, college societies ought to have at least some consideration for dignity and their own reputation beyond generating tawdry publicity.
When you have the power to invite someone into a seat of learning, could you at least make sure it's someone you feel has something worthy of saying? Someone you believe in? Words have the power both to destroy and heal, said Siddharta Guatama, and when words are both true and kind they can change our world.
Nick Griffin is an unashamed 'Britain for Britons' racist, who opposes all immigration, and, in the BNP's 2005 election manifesto, said that Britons who had completed a certain amount of military service should be "required to keep in a safe locker in their homes a standard-issue military assault rifle and ammunition.". That's the least of it. Google 'BNP Asian Fight' for an idea of how the party canvasses.
Free speech is a laudable concept, but is restricted and qualified by law in almost every jurisdiction in the world: libel/slander, incitement to hatred, not shouting 'FIRE!' in a crowded theatre etc. No truly free speech exists anywhere that I'm aware of; not even in the vanguard of western democracies.
Inviting Griffin to speak about the parameters of free speech, then, smells distinctly fishy. What are we learning? Mr. English reassures us "Our invitation to Mr Griffin is by no means a defence of what he has to say, rather it is a defence of his right to say it."
His right to do so is already largely guaranteed under law provided he doesn't slander. He skirts dangerously close to inciting hatred. Nonetheless, accepting his freedom to speak doesn't translate into a privilege to speak at a university in the Republic of Ireland or into a right to do so. All these events ever seem to amount to is the inviting of the political equivalent of the village idiot into a respectable venue to have a gawk at, and perhaps to tease with reasoning, only for the same idiot to remain wilfully ignorant and have the last laugh as it all redounds to the glory of him.
Griffin's event will likely get cancelled over security concerns and I'm sure Ryan Tubridy is already making contingency plans. Griffin, and only Griffin, wins.
This invitation should never have been made. Shame on UCC Government and Politics. Here's to your being fully allowed to make mistakes too (and again in the future). Just don't think that there are no consequences: such as a loss of reputation, opprobrium and embarrassment.
Correction, 14/12/11: This piece originally stated, wrongly, that Nick Griffin is a British MP. He is a Member of the European Parliament (MEP).
Image top: motti82.