Oxford University has intervened to protect free speech in a row that has engulfed the institution.
In a letter to The Telegraph, one of the university’s pro-vice-chancellors tells students they must be prepared to “encounter and confront difficult views, including ones they find unsettling, extreme or even offensive”.
Prof Martin Williams’s comments come after students tried to cancel an appearance by Prof Kathleen Stock, a leading feminist, at the Oxford Union later this month over her views that trans women are not women.
Oxford University’s Student Union (SU) said it would ban the Oxford Union from its freshers’ fair, accusing the historic debating society of having a “toxic culture of bullying and harassment”.
However, it has now reversed its position after the university reminded the SU’s trustees of its free speech policy. The SU had said its actions were not related to Prof Stock’s appearance.
Earlier this week, more than 40 Oxford academics wrote to The Telegraph supporting Prof Stock, saying she should be free to discuss her views at the university and warning that freedom of speech was at risk.
No-platforming ‘not allowed’
Prof Williams said: “We do not allow the no-platforming of any lawful speech but also support the right of students, staff and societies to protest and challenge speakers at events, as long as they do so within the law and our policies.”
He added: “The Oxford Union, a debating society independent of the university but whose leaders and members are mostly drawn from our student body, has not been banned from attending the freshers’ fair.
“Students should be free to decide whether to join a society or club. While we understand there are concerns held by the Student Union about the Oxford Union, the university is actively encouraging the two organisations to discuss the issues.”
The university said the decision to allow the Union to have a stall at the freshers’ fair, which is an important source of income from membership sign-ups, was taken independently by the SU’s trustees.
Prof Williams said: “The university and its colleges host hundreds of events each term and we will continue to invite a wide range of speakers.
“Despite what some may have been led to believe, freedom of speech and expression is alive and well at Oxford.”
‘Consequences will help to focus minds’
On Thursday night, Whitehall insiders were celebrating the decision to allow the Union to have a stall at the freshers’ fair as a sign that the new Free Speech Act is having an impact.
New legislation passed in Parliament explicitly requires student unions to secure freedom of speech for all students at the university. It states that they cannot disaffiliate societies or bar them from premises on the grounds of their ideas or beliefs.
Iain Mansfield, head of education at the Policy Exchange think tank, said: “Student unions and universities who fail to uphold free speech can be fined – and, if the Oxford Union had suffered loss as a result of being barred from the freshers’ fair, they may have been able to sue for damages.
“These consequences will help to focus minds amongst any other student unions, or universities, who may try to suppress free speech.”