WHEN it comes to campus politics the issue of our times often seems to be who is no-platforming who. Mostly this revolves around student unions or societies preventing people whose views they consider hurtful from speaking, though recently, the issue has been whether a statue of Cecil Rhodes should be de-platformed from its prominent position at Oriel College, Oxford University. Students there launched the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, an echo of a similar campaign over a statue in South Africa, calling for its removal and decrying his British supremacism and Imperialism. Their demands have ignited a debate on free speech.

Naturally, several high-profile, senior figures have weighed into the debate, most notably Lord Patten, who drew an analogy between the Rhodes campaign and the no-platforming of speakers in universities. “That focus on Rhodes is unfortunate,” he said, “but it’s an example of what’s happening in American campuses and British campuses. One of the points of a university – which is not to tolerate intolerance, to engage in free inquiry and debate – is being denied. People have to face up to facts in history which they don’t like and talk about them and debate them.”

Patten was pointing to what he considers a wider problem. It’s one that was highlighted last year when the web magazine Spiked Online published their first Free Speech University Rankings (their second list will be published next month). Among the universities they red-flagged for their supposed restrictions were Stirling and Edinburgh, the latter in part for the student’s union’s banning of Robin Thicke’s song, Blurred Lines.

But is no-platforming really such a threat to free speech? Its use, clearly, has expanded rapidly in recent years. What for decades was a way of excluding the voices of racist and fascist groups, of refusing them political legitimacy, has developed a wider use. Speakers who students have tried to no-platform include feminists, for instance, Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer, both accused of transphobia for their views that trans women are not women. But they also include men accused of misogyny, such as comedian Dapper Laughs.

It’s interesting that no-platforming has become such a big deal at the precise moment at which it should be redundant, in the age of Twitter, Facebook, Google and YouTube. In an era in which the number of platforms for ideas has proliferated, one would think that there would be no point in it. Tell someone they can’t come and talk at your university and it’s unlikely you’ll have a great deal of impact on the dissemination of their ideas. Arguably Julie Bindel, for instance, has become more famous because of her no-platforming. Late last year, Germaine Greer did the trans movement a favour when she was interviewed by the BBC about the petition to have her banned from speaking at the University of Cardiff. The debate that might have happened in the campus (and still did, as she nevertheless delivered her lecture) then took place across the entire UK media and beyond.

No-platforming, in other words, is a feeble tool if what you really want to do is silence people. What it is good at is giving your own ideas a little more volume. As Eve Livingston, former Vice President at Edinburgh University Student’s Association, has put it, it is a “tool and a tactic” for those who want to get other voices and views into a debate.

Last week we heard a lot of voices other than Chris Patten's: voices that we might never have heard otherwise. Among them was Brian Kwoba, a doctoral student at Oxford, quoted saying: “Cecil Rhodes is responsible for all manner of stealing land, massacring tens of thousands of Black Africans, imposing a regime of unspeakable labour exploitation in the diamond mines and devising proto-apartheid policies.” We also leared that one survey found that 59.3 per cent of black and ethnic minority students have felt uncomfortable or unwelcome at Oxford because of their race or ethnicity. To some extent, the campaign has worked, though given that three-quarters of students don’t want the statue removed, it’s unlikely Rhodes will fall.

Meanwhile, a debate is ongoing about what free speech means, a battle over its ownership in a digital age. It’s quite common for the advocates of no-platforming to perceive themselves as advocates of free speech. Daisy Chandley, organiser of Rhodes Must Fall, doesn’t see herself as a cultural censor. “We are demanding debate and free speech," she declared, "not trying to quiet it.”

Edinburgh’s Eve Livingston also emphasised her credentials, saying, “The people who are painted as being against free speech are actually trying to enhance it, by having a diverse range of voices, rather than these really loud voices saying the same thing over and over again.”

Is there a genuine threat to free speech here? In all this cacophony of noise, of bannings and petitions and trigger warnings, I don’t hear it. What I see, though, is a generational divide. The people who are being no-platformed mostly belong to an older establishment, even if that wasn’t where they started out. They were reared on traditional media and speaking engagements. They came of intellectual age in a time when the prime forums for discussion were public spaces and smoky rooms, not internet forums and Facebook threads. Of course, live discussion remains important, but we can’t imagine that free speech and debate work as they always did, even in universities. And, although no-platforming looks like censorship, perhaps it is only masquerading as such. Rather, more often than not, it is an injection into the debate, a subversive challenge, a form of expression in an era when the one thing that seems impossible is silence. The main problem, however, is that like all tools, it's only available to those who know how to use it.