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London: In its 200-year history the Oxford Union has hosted the good, the great and the odious on its way to cementing itself as one of the world’s most prestigious debating societies.
The guest list is long but takes in Mother Teresa, Albert Einstein and Desmond Tutu as well as Provisional IRA leader Martin McGuinness, OJ Simpson, after he was acquitted of murdering his wife, and holocaust denier David Irving.
Then-US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the Oxford Union in 2016.Credit: AP
The society’s commitment to free speech, as well as the wider University of Oxford, has long been robust. The most recent test came with the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, a six-year tussle targeting the legacy of Cecil Rhodes fought out between the anti-colonialist movement, a divided university, and government ministers who have adamantly opposed the removal of historic monuments.
But now several university groups are cutting their long affiliation with the society, and up to 1000 protesters are preparing a campus picket in a dispute over the decision by the Oxford Union to invite the feminist professor Kathleen Stock to give a talk on gender on May 30.
Stock – described recently as a “mild-mannered and eminently sensible middle-aged lesbian” – resigned as a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex in 2021 following what she described as “bullying and harassment” in response to her views on gender identification and transgender rights. The controversy revolved around her belief that a person’s self-declared gender identity does not outweigh their biological sex, “particularly when it comes to law and policy”.
In April, the Oxford University LGBTQ+ society called for Stock’s invitation to speak to be rescinded, claiming she was “transphobic and trans-exclusionary”. It also accused Oxford Union of disregarding the welfare of the society’s members under the guise of free speech.
Professor Kathleen Stock after being made an OBE for services to higher education in an investiture ceremony at Buckingham Palace, on July 14, 2022.Credit: Getty
Earlier this month, Oxford’s student union passed a motion to cut financial ties with the Oxford Union. Seventy-eight per cent of those present voted in favour, preventing the Oxford Union from having a stall at the freshers’ fair, causing a reduction in membership that will likely put a strain on the debating organisation’s finances. It is the first time such action has been taken.
Several Oxford colleges including St Edmund Hall, Mansfield, St Anne’s and St Hilda’s have also passed motions condemning the talk, calling for Stock’s invite “to be rescinded in support of the trans community”.
Christ Church, one of the wealthiest colleges, described Stock as a “notorious transphobe” and said that if she spoke the union would be “complicit and responsible in spreading transphobic rhetoric”.
The drama comes amid a spate of free speech rows at universities featuring speakers with gender-critical views – including attempts by the University of Bristol to ban the public from a feminist society talk and activists at the University of Edinburgh preventing a screening of a women’s rights documentary.
A report last year by the Higher Education Policy Institute found a culture of “quiet no-platforming” and a climate of fear was constraining free speech at universities, with students scared to invite speakers regarded by some as controversial due to potential abuse, a lack of support from student unions or the cost of security.
The Stock affair last week sparked one of the most significant interventions by academics in recent controversies over free speech on campus. More than 40 academics – including Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist, and Nigel Biggar, the theologian – have intervened in support of Stock’s appearance.
The group, ranging from well-known professors to younger lecturers who have recently graduated, were united by the belief that the right to free speech is sacred and must be defended, warning that students and administrators at the university were bowing to increasingly hysterical activists who use social media to create outrage.
In a letter to The Telegraph, they said they possessed “a range of different political beliefs, left and right”, but were united in their belief that “universities exist, among other things, to promote free inquiry and the disinterested pursuit of the truth by means of reasoned argument”.
“Professor Stock believes that biological sex in humans is real and socially salient, a view which until recently would have been so commonplace as to hardly merit asserting,” it read.
“Whether or not one agrees with Professor Stock’s views, there is no plausible and attractive ideal of academic freedom, or of free speech more generally, which would condemn their expression as outside the bounds of permissible discourse.”
Responding to the academics’ letter, the LGBTQ+ society said it stood by its statement, and said it was an “insult” for Oxford Union to give Stock a platform.
The student union also criticised the press for “erroneously” conflating its motion about the Oxford Union with the decision to invite Stock as a speaker, reaffirming its commitment to the right of people to have controversial and unpopular ideas debated as an integral part of university life.
“The motion was unrelated to Dr Stock’s intended talk,” it said in a statement. “It did not mention Dr Stock or any other speaker at the Oxford Union, instead citing long-standing concerns relating to alleged bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination and data privacy breaches which affect students.”
Irene Tracey, who took over as vice-chancellor in January, said part of the university’s role was to enable students to deal with differing viewpoints and that the conflict over freedom of speech is “turbocharged” by social media.
“Our job is to help equip them because they’re going to go into the workplace,” she told The Times.
“You’ve got to get used to views that are going to be absolutely aligned with your own, and ones that you’ll find distasteful.”
The Oxford Union said students will have an “opportunity to respectfully engage and challenge” Stock’s views at the event, as well as being able to ask questions anonymously. It said there would be “additional welfare resources available on the evening” because of the sensitive nature of the event.
Previously, the society has rescinded invitations to speakers following public outcries, such as the far-right fascist leader John Tyndall in 1998 and the Australian euthanasia campaigner Philip Nitschke in 2009.
Stock says she intends to appear, no matter the obstacles or threats put in her way.
“I was lucky enough to go to Oxford … and my encounters there with exigent and rigorous critical thinkers changed my life,” she said on Times Radio last week.
“I am very pleased to see that, despite facing some significant challenges, the tradition of free inquiry still lives and thrives there.”
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