The Ethics of No Platforming

Abstract

No platforming has become increasingly common on college campuses in recent years, and interminable polemics have raged about if it is justified or not.1 These debates, however, often suffer from a lack of philosophical clarity and precision about what no platforming is (including distinctions among kinds of no platforming) and its ethical status. In this presentation, I will present a novel framework for understanding the different kinds of no platforming and their ethical justification (or lack thereof). Once we understand the distinctions among different kinds of no platforming, I argue, we will see why arguments in favor of the most controversial forms of no platforming face steep challenges.

No platforming is the practice of denying or withholding (or attempting to do so) a platform from which a speaker can express their views. This is a broad definition.2 We can consider it a genus with several species under it, each of which has a different structure. In this presentation, I will present four different forms of no platforming:

  1. It’s My Party: Non-platforming. When $A$ does not offer speaker $S$ a platform that $A$ controls, $A$ non-platforms $S$. A characteristic example of this is when an academic department does not invite a speaker to give a keynote address for academic reasons.

  2. You Invited Who!?: Un-platforming. If speaker $S$ has been invited by $B$ and if $A$ attempts to get $B$ to revoke the invitation to $S$ (such as with a petition or open letter), $A$ un-platforms $S$.

  3. Calling the Parents: De-platforming. If $S$ has been invited by $B$ and $A$ attempts to get $C$, a third-party who has power over $B$ or the venue (such as a university administration), to deny $S$ a platform to speak, $A$ de-platforms $S$.

  4. Heckler’s Veto: Dis-platforming. If $S$ is speaking and $A$ disrupts the platform to such a degree that $S$ cannot speak (or the audience cannot listen), then $A$ dis-platforms $S$.

Because each of these has a different structure, they tend to have different ethical statuses. For example, non-platforming (It’s My Party) is typically a necessary and unobjectionable part of academic life: $A$ decides autonomously (and ideally on the basis of disciplinary expertise) whether or not to invite speaker $S$.3 The ethics of un-platforming (You Invited Who!?) often depend on the means by which $A$ attempts to get $B$ to revoke the invitation. In some cases, it may be part of the normal hurly-burly of free speech and the inviter may make an autonomous choice based on persuasive arguments to revoke the invitation or not, while, in others, it may be an objectionable form of piling on.4 By contrast, with de-platforming (Calling the Parents) and dis-platforming (Heckler’s Veto), $A$ attempts to restrict the freedom of the speaker, the inviter, and the audience, whether through a third-party or directly. Because they restrict that freedom (whether through official or unofficial channels), such attempts at censorship must meet an extremely high bar to be ethically justified. They will often fail to meet that bar.

Once we have this framework in place, we can use it to evaluate arguments in favor of no platforming.5 For example, Robert Simpson and Amia Srinivasan have recently argued that no platforming can be justified as part of academic freedom.6 Academic freedom, on this view, includes the right to include and, importantly, exclude speakers on the basis of academic considerations in order to maintain disciplinary norms (such as not inviting a flat-earther to give a lecture at the geology department). Although it is true that some forms of no platforming, such as non-platforming (It’s My Party) or even un-platforming (You Invited Who!?), may be justified on the grounds of academic freedom, other forms of no platforming will not be so justified, as they impermissibly interfere with the rights of others to exercise their academic freedom (or freedom of speech). Justification, then, for one kind of no platforming do not automatically transfer to other forms of no platforming. If this is right, then attempts to justify more controversial forms of no platforming will face steep challenges.

References

Barrett, Lisa Feldman. “When Is Speech Violence?” The New York Times, July 14, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/14/opinion/sunday/when-is-speech-violence.html.

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, The. “Disinvitation Database,” 2018. https://www.thefire.org/resources/disinvitation-database/.

Jonathan Haidt, and Greg Lukianoff. “Why It’s a Bad Idea to Tell Students Words Are Violence.” The Atlantic, July 18, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/07/why-its-a-bad-idea-to-tell-students-words-are-violence/533970/.

Simpson, Robert, and Amia Srinivasan. “No Platforming.” In Academic Freedom, edited by Jennifer Lackey. Engaging Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.


  1. For example, 2016 and 2017 each saw more disinvitation attempts than any prior year (back to 2000), and they were the only two years (aside from 2009), in which there were more successful than unsuccessful disinvitation attempts The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, “Disinvitation Database,” 2018, https://www.thefire.org/resources/disinvitation-database/. ↩︎

  2. This is a broader definition of no platforming than is common in the popular understanding of it. Some of the species of no platforming discussed here (de-platforming and dis-platforming) more closely approximate those views, while others do not (non-platforming). ↩︎

  3. This is not to say that non-platforming cannot be morally objectionable. For example, consider a sexist academic department that non-platforms women disproportionately to men, despite their equal qualifications. ↩︎

  4. For piling on, see Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke’s “Moral Grandstanding.” ↩︎

  5. Although I discuss academic-freedom based arguments here, I also suspect that they may provide a new perspective on harm-based arguments, which contend that no platforming is justified because it prevents students from being harmed by certain views. For example, see Lisa Feldman Barrett, “When Is Speech Violence?” The New York Times, July 14, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/14/opinion/sunday/when-is-speech-violence.html. These arguments often fail in practice to establish threshold of sufficient harm is met to justify censorship. (For a response to Barrett’s harm-based argument, see Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, “Why It’s a Bad Idea to Tell Students Words Are Violence,” The Atlantic, July 18, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2017/07/why-its-a-bad-idea-to-tell-students-words-are-violence/533970/.) However, with the above analysis of no platforming, we can see that considerations of harm (and even offense) should be taken into account by responsible agents deliberating about whether or not to extend or deny a platform to a speaker. ↩︎

  6. Simpson Robert and Amia Srinivasan, “No Platforming,” in Academic Freedom, ed. Jennifer Lackey, Engaging Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). ↩︎

Date
May 1, 2018
Location
Bowling Green State University