As human rights activists, writers, and scholars, we strongly condemn the actions of Peter Tatchell in bullying, vilifying, and inciting a media furor against a student who criticized him in a private e-mail. These attacks exemplify a pattern; Tatchell has repeatedly shown intolerance of criticism and disrespect for others’ free expression. They also exemplify a broader problem. A moral panic over inflated claims of ‘no-platforming’ reflects a persistent, deep resistance to diversity in intellectual and public life.
UK media have attacked Fran Cowling, National Union of Students (NUS) LGBT+ Officer (Women’s Place), for allegedly ‘no-platforming’ Tatchell from a conference on “Re-Radicalizing Queers” held at Canterbury Christchurch University. These reports are simply untrue.
The facts are these. Cowling was invited to attend the conference by the event organizer, another Canterbury Christchurch student. She declined. Her decision not to attend was informed by her belief that Peter Tatchell has engaged in problematic tactics and politics regarding Muslim, Black and trans communities, for which she provided evidence. Without permission, the other student forwarded this confidential email chain to Peter Tatchell.
In the following days, Peter emailed NUS demanding further evidence for this claim. NUS assured him he had not been ‘no platformed’ and that Fran’s decision was not an organisational one. Tatchell persisted, however, and on the afternoon of February 11 he demanded that Fran Cowling apologise to him and to the University for her private e-mail. Less than 24 hours later, NUS received a press request from the Observer: Peter had forwarded them the emails. They asked why he had been ‘no platformed’.
In the massive furor that followed Fran Cowling has been smeared, bullied, trolled, and harassed in the national press and on social media. Tatchell has personally vilified her and encouraged others to do so, writing in the right-wing Telegraph that she posed a threat to “enlightenment values.” Yet Tatchell was never censored. He spoke at the conference; he took his case to the Telegraphand Newsnight; he has not been “silenced.” The logical implication of Tatchell’s position is: That no officers of the NUS be allowed to criticize him, even in private e-mails; and that all its officers be forced to share platforms with him, like it or not. “Free speech,” indeed!
Peter Tatchell has little credibility as a free-speech defender.
- Tatchell has a long record of urging that public platforms be denied members of ethnic and religious groups, especially Muslims. He has called for banning so-called “Islamist” speakers from Universities. He has even demanded mosques apologise “for hosting homophobic hate preachers” and give “assurances that they will not host them again.” Tatchell claims the right to decide who qualifies as a “homophobic hate preacher”; what counts is not inciting violence or any tangible threats to LGBT Londoners, but rather simply expressing religious opinions about homosexual acts. The peculiar urgency with which Tatchell targets Muslims lends credibility to the charge of racial insensitivity.
- Tatchell retaliates harshly against critics of his actions. In 2015, he signed an open letter which appeared to be about free speech but which contained vague but pointed references to “some demands made by trans activists.” When transgender advocates objected – many taking to social media to challenge what they saw as a colleague’s betrayal – Tatchell accused them, collectively and falsely, of threatening him; he called them a “Twitter mob who vowed to kill me.” (The defamatory claim smeared all transgender activists on the basis of one person’s lone Tweet.) Transgender campaigner Sarah Brown faced social-media abuse herself after Tatchell singled her out as a critic. Tatchell also turned to vicious trans-haters in the right-wing media to spread his message of victimhood, seeking support from Milo Yiannopoulos (who says “Transgenderism is a psychiatric disorder”) and Brendan O’Neill (who dismisses the right to change one’s gender markers on identity papers as “Orwellianism”). Those who use transphobes to attack trans people invite the accusation of transphobia.
- Tatchell has also repeatedly assaulted academic freedom – especially ironic in this situation. In 2009, Raw Nerve Press, a small feminist publisher, withdrew a book containing an article critical of his political stances after pressure exerted by Peter Tatchell and his legal team. He compelled the publisher to publish a lengthy apology praising him fulsomely. He also attacked the authors, three scholars of colour, in a broad media campaign, calling his critics “twisted academics.”
- Tatchell used similar threats under the UK’s then draconian libel law to force Routledge to pulp a book containing a peer-reviewed article by Scott Long of Human Rights Watch, critical of Tatchell’s factual claims and methods around Iran. Not content with suppressing the article, Tatchell also pursued Human Rights Watch with legal threats; staffers of Tatchell’s Foundation have harassed Long subsequently. The express aim of Tatchell’s tactics was to suppress public criticism of himself.
Tatchell censors others. His claims to be a victim of censorship would hardly gain traction – save that they play strategically into a furor over so-called “no-platforming.”
“No-platforming,” particularly at universities, has become the object of a moral panic in the British media. Any objection to any speaker – whether a public protest or a private e-mail — can be vilified and decried as a threat to free speech. Yet no one has an automatic right to a lecture slot. Universities can and constantly do choose who takes the podium. And when a person with a record of attacking radical queers is asked to keynote a conference on “Re-Radicalizing Queers,” it is entirely fitting to debate the propriety of the invitation.
In recent months, a series of celebrities have claimed to be victims of “no platforming” – Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel, now Tatchell. Yetnone of these have actually had their speech restricted. Greer’s case is instructive. In no sense did anyone else “no-platform” her. She herself theatrically bowed out of a speaking engagement, citing the possibility of peaceful, nondisruptive protests which she was unwilling to confront. The canny move of no-platforming herself helped her seize the public spotlight far better than her original lecture could. All these alleged victims have easy access to media platforms vast in their reach. Greer can go to the Guardian; Tatchell can take his complaints to Newsnight. The risk that their voices will be ignored is nonexistent.
The panic over self-proclaimed “no-platforming” has little to do with free expression, but everything to do with power. It feeds on entrenched authority’s fear of a diverse academy and a diverse public sphere. Those who claim to be silenced readily generate more and more platforms for themselves through this claim — speaking endlessly about not being allowed to speak. Meanwhile, those who have to fight hard to get their voices heard (feminists of colour, trans activists, student activists, to name just a few) are labelled agents of silencing — and defilers of the reputations of those with a public voice. When critiques of racism and transphobia are heard merely as attacks on celebrity images, then those critiques are rendered marginal, and the critics are the ones silenced. Tatchell’s assiduous efforts to expunge ‘offending’ statements and articles from official circulation exemplify this dynamic.
We call on Peter Tatchell to desist from his attacks on other activists, and from his attempts to erase legitimate critiques of his work. We have no desire to ‘censor’ or ‘silence’ him. But we also call on universities and other institutions that host him to challenge him on his record of violating academic freedom and endangering others’ rights to criticize and speak. We also urge those institutions to recognize important visions and voices alternative to Tatchell’s. They should be seen and heard. Let those who feel Tatchell is entitled to a lectern extend the same privilege, and respect, to others.
-Signed by over 150 concerned activists, writers and scholars.[Source: Alana Lentin. Photo: Oli Scarff/Getty Images]