Should Hitler have been able to speak at the Oxford Union?

The Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) recently voted to “condemn” the invitation of Marine LePen to speak at the Oxford Union (which is an entirely separate organization, for those outside of Oxford). In addition to condemning LePen and the Union for inviting her, the OUSU President was mandated to send an emergency letter (i.e. a letter that comes outside the normal weekly bulletins, and usually happens when a person is missing or there is an emergency). I was informed that as a student union, “we” had voted to condemn LePen and the Union for giving her a platform and were encouraged to protest. To what extent is this true? Had the Union, in inviting her, legitimised her politics?

As I understand it, this movement is based on the idea that freedom of speech does not include “the right of fascists to a platform for their views”. The argument seems to be that by inviting LePen and giving her a “platform”, the Oxford Union “legitimises” her views and thus implicitly supports fascism. As one of the proposers of the motion is reported in The Guardian,

XXX, a history and politics student, said she was disgusted that Le Pen could “now go back to France and say she has been invited to speak at Oxford University. That is the kind of legitimacy that is allowing her and her abhorrent party to become acceptable.”

The endorsed protest quickly turned sour, with people in balaclavas attacking non-protesting students, calls for the murder of LePen, breaking into the Union grounds, and barring people from entering the chamber to hear LePen. Naturally, there was a large police presence to keep the peace. One of the key messages of the protest was that LePen is like Hitler and so should be treated as a Nazi. Prominent chants were reported as being

 “Marine Le Pen, we know you, Daddy was a fascist too”, “Nazi scum, off our streets”, and “Follow your leader, shoot yourself like Adolf Hitler”.

To what extent did the Union legitimise LePen by inviting her? My thoughts on this is that it was right for LePen to be invited to the Oxford Union because she is a prominent European politician. Recent polls suggest that LePen comes out on top as the choice for the next French President, and her party recently excelled in the European Elections. To my mind, this means that LePen already has a platform and is a legitimate politician, and to that end it is perfectly acceptable to invite her. I think the Union was clear that it doesn’t endorse her policies (thank God!), but that her views should still be heard.

All of this then made me question how I would feel if, in 1933 Hitler had been invited to the Union. At a personal level, I would feel it distasteful, and for good reason – I would most likely have been one of those exterminated in the Holocaust. But do I think that it would be wrong because this would “platform” him and legitimise the Nazi views? I’m not so sure. It seems to me that in this context, Hitler was a legitimate politician – he was Chancellor of Germany! His views were already becoming worryingly apparent and his ideology morally warped, but does this mean he wasn’t a real politician? I don’t think so. As I think about this hypothetical case, I wonder how I would have responded. And I think that, ultimately, if I ignore my feelings, I would have supported an invitation of Hitler to the Oxford Union in the early 1930s. Would speaking at the Union actually legitimise Hitler, given that he was already a prominent politician in Germany? This seems unlikely to me. Hitler, at that time, was already and legitimate, and already had a platform. For this reason, I think the OUSU endorsed condemnation of ‘platforming’ LePen is fundamentally flawed. LePen already has a platform, and is already a legitimate politician. That we dislike it doesn’t make it not so.

Freedom of speech, particularly in the context of politics and democracy, is a fundamental moral principle and it shouldn’t be abandoned based on our feelings of whether we like the speaker or not. To quote George Orwell, “Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear”. I do not like LePen, and would never vote for her, but as the leader of a major political party she deserves the right to be heard. Such are the principles of democracy. It may not be great in all situations, but it’s probably the best option we have.


[Note: This post originally appeared on the Oxford University Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics blog, of which I am regularly contributor. ]