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University of Oxford feminists: It’s OK to deplatform speakers if we can’t ‘debate’ them

Government threatens to regulate student groups for violating free speech

University of Oxford feminists marked International Women’s Day in a most unusual way: by deplatforming a woman.

Now they are responding to criticism of the last-minute disinvitation of former Home Secretary Amber Rudd – a decision denounced by the university administration – by claiming the event structure wasn’t fair to them.

The United Women Oxford Student Society yanked its March 5 “In Conversation” event with Rudd, also former “minister for women and equalities,” six hours after telling potential attendees: “Can’t wait to hear all your questions!”

The event was advertised as a discussion of “women in politics” and Rudd’s work in Parliament, which included “tougher legal penalties” for female genital mutilation and mandatory sex education in secondary schools. “Join us to hear what she has to say about her work in this traditionally male-dominated field,” the listing says.

An hour before start time, a post on the Facebook event page announced the event had been cancelled by a “majority vote in committee.” The group apologized for “hurt caused to our members and other wom*n [sic] and non binary people in Oxford over this event.”

(The Guardian says it was cancelled even later, just 30 minutes before. Rudd said the same in criticizing the “rude” action on Twitter.)

The society acknowledged the controversy over the Rudd event three days earlier, noting her implication in a government scandal (“Windrush”) involving British subjects who were detained, deported or denied services:

We invited Ms Rudd on the understanding that this would be an honest and frank conversation about how her policies have impacted wom*n [sic] of all races, religions, classes et cetera. We will not run away from mentioning any of Ms Rudd’s past comments or policies, and we ask you to attend this event to help us campaign for a truly frank feminism which is not afraid of taking such opportunities to discuss these issues with high profile figures.

It promised attendees they would have the floor to question Rudd in the second half of the event, and assured them it would remove anyone who uses “homphobic [sic], transphobic, sexist, ableist or racist actions or speech” in Q&A.

Something evidently changed in the six hours after the society reminded Facebook visitors the event was still on.

MORE: U.K. office will ‘fine, suspend, deregister’ universities that don’t protect speech

The administration “strongly disapproves” of the disinvitation, which prevented Rudd from discussing “issues arising from her time in the Home Office,” it said in a March 6 statement:

The University is strongly committed to freedom of speech and opposes no-platforming. We encourage our students to debate and engage with a range of views, and to treat others with the courtesy and dignity that they would expect themselves.

We will be making the University’s position and feelings very clear to the event organisers and taking necessary steps to ensure that this cannot be repeated.

This defense of free speech led the society to grovel even further and state explicitly that “pressure from the Oxford African and Caribbean Society” was not behind the disinvitation.

Inviting Rudd was an insult to “BAME students” (black, Asian and minority ethnic) “affected by her policies,” and the event “would have been incompatible with our intention to be an inclusive and welcoming society and we cancelled it on this premise,” the society wrote.

It accused the administration of showing “a lack of regard for the welfare of black students” in its statement denouncing the disinvitation.

Rudd “has access to many other platforms to express her opinions” and the society chose wisely by putting “the welfare of our BAME students first,” even if the last-minute cancellation was “disrespectful” to Rudd.

The disinvitation has been mischaracterized as a free-speech issue, according to Safa Sadozai‎, ethnic diversity representative for the Oxford Feminist Society.

She told The Guardian that it’s not about free speech because the event wasn’t advertised as a “debate”:

“All the promotional material spoke about Rudd’s role in encouraging women to get involved in parliament and the UN,” Sadozai‎ said. “Under that context, it didn’t sound like it could ever be an open debate where views are challenged.” …

“It’s been misunderstood by the university as a free-speech issue or no-platforming,” Sadozai said. “Many people here were saying she is not entitled to be celebrated or upheld as a feminist.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson made clear the government was watching Oxford’s response, The Telegraph reports. He called it “unacceptable” that Rudd’s disinvitation was the second in a week at the university: Historian Selina Todd was earlier “no-platformed” at 700-year-old Exeter College.

“It is not enough to adopt free speech codes if they are not enforced,” Williamson said, promising “the Government will” take action “if universities are not prepared to defend free speech.” Leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg added that the university must stop “being snowflake central.”

According to the newspaper, “ministers are considering amending the 1986 Education Act to ensure that the Office for Students (OfS) is able to police student bodies” – currently unregulated – “that fail to protect free speech.”

It said an unnamed government source floated the idea of forcing universities to protect free speech with the same vigor they police alleged racism: “It would be very interesting if the OfS had the power to directly regulate [student bodies] and fine them.”

Read The Guardian and Telegraph coverage.

MORE: Viewpoint diversity group forced to pass ‘health and safety’ review

IMAGES: ViChizh/Shutterstock, United Women Oxford Student Society/Facebook

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg spent several years as a technology policy reporter and editor for Warren Communications News in Washington, D.C., and guest host on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators.” He co-founded the alternative newspaper PUNCH and served as a reporter, editor and columnist for The Falcon at Seattle Pacific University.

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