Methinks the Union doth protest too much

Student Life

The organisation dubbed “the last bastion of free speech in the Western world” by Harold Macmillan has prided itself in offering a platform to anyone, so it’s no surprise that the Oxford Union Society has attracted such controversial speakers over the years. With the planned tele-presence of Julian Assange sparking protests, we’re taking a look back at some of the most contentious speakers to be invited, rejected and booed over the past 150 years.

John Tyndall

Originally the leader of the National Front, Tyndall founded the British National Party in 1982. In 1999, Tyndall was invited to speak on the motion ‘This house believes that racism is inevitable’ due to his status as “an expert in this field”. However, with less than a month to go, a series of horrific nail bomb attacks hit London, perpetrated by a BNP member who targeted black, Bangladeshi and gay communities. The Thames Valley Police decided that they would be unable to provide security for the “inappropriate” debate and so, due to risk of violent protests, the debate was cancelled.

Gerry Adams

While most of these speakers can claim to have been controversial, none had been serving a television ban in the UK at the time of the talk other than Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. The choice to book him in March 1987 certainly raised a few eyebrows given his staunch Republican support and refusal to take his elected seat for Belfast West at Westminster because he would not sit in a “foreign parliament”.

The Irish firebrand certainly did not disappoint those looking for controversy, telling the assembled audience in the debating chamber: “I have never condemned the IRA and I never will. For me to condemn them would be to say I do not understand them.” Although it was hardly out of character for the Sinn Fein leader, his words still shocked those watching, especially when he went on to condemn the killing of eight IRA men by the RUC as “murder”.

Michael Jackson

Photo/Georges Biard

In 2001, the King of Pop graced the Union with his presence alongside his mentor-of-the-moment Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Not too controversial you may think, but perhaps the topic of “child welfare” was not the best choice considering Jackson’s already tarnished reputation in this particular arena.

His speech launched his latest children’s charity, dished out parenting advice and included some soul-searching questions about his children: “What if they grow older and resent me, and how my choices impacted their youth?…Why weren’t we given a normal childhood like all the other children? And at that moment I pray that my children will give me the benefit of the doubt.” One year later, Jacko dangled his child from the balcony of his Berlin hotel in front of hundreds of fans.

O.J. Simpson

Photo/Alan Light

Star of 1995’s most popular US TV show, world’s most innocent man O.J. Simpson decided that the best way to celebrate being declared not guilty of his wife’s murder would be to have a chat to some Oxford students. Greeted at Heathrow airport with cries of “Is the murderer in Britain?”, O.J. acquired the services of image bleacher, Max Clifford, who barred all US press from the Union. Speaking to a packed-out chamber about his innocence, Simpson managed to raise laughter and cheers despite accusing one questioner of racism and making light of his convictions for wife beating.

Fortunately for the integrity of the University, American student, Fiona Maazel, 21, stood up mid-speech and told him: “This isn’t funny, you are being sued for wrongful death. And your history of assault and abuse makes you an insult to the gender and to the entire Oxford community at large. Don’t come here for sympathy.” She was promptly told to leave the last bastion of free speech.

Dr Zakir Naik


In 2011, the Union ‘stuck it to the man’ by inviting banned Muslim scholar, Dr Zakir Naik, to address an audience via satellite link. Having been barred from the country by Theresa May for apparently asserting that “all Muslims should be terrorists”, the televangelist had the opportunity to claim his exclusion order was undeserved. The invitation left the then Minister for Work and Pensions, Chris Grayling, red-faced after he’d previously vowed to ban all satellite links for those excluded from the UK.

The Oxford University Jewish Society called for the invitation to be cancelled, claiming: “Compromising government attempts to keep our country free of hate speech undermines the very basis of the Union.” This is perhaps unsurprising considering Naik is quoted as warning: “We need to be careful of the Jews.”

George Galloway

Photo/David Hunt

Everyone’s favourite meowing politician swapped the Big Brother house for the Union Chamber in 2012 to speak, as usual, about a number of different issues. However, the visit was preceded by a podcast about Union buddy, Julian Assange, in which he claimed that having sex with a sleeping partner is not rape but “bad sexual etiquette” and that “not everybody needs to be asked prior to each insertion…you’re already in the sex game with them”. His comments led to him being banned from appearing alongside any NUS speakers (the beginning of the end for so many politicians) and to protestors gathering outside the famous Union gate.

Sadly for them, the protest was a bit of a damp squib. Galloway’s spokesperson told the press afterwards: “We understand there were around eight protestors and we respect their right to protest. However George Galloway holds the view that there are much more appropriate targets for them to protest against.”

Edward Atiyah

Back in 1964, author and Iraqi embassy official, Edward Atiyah appeared in an evening debate. While his controversial book ‘The Arabs’ raised heckles from the audience, the most shocking moment of the evening was sadly Atiyah’s last. The President of the Union told press: “Mr Atiyah complained before the debate of feeling unwell. He asked for a whisky and ate no dinner.” At the start of his speech, Atiyah collapsed and was rushed to the Radcliffe Infirmary where he was declared dead.

Richard Nixon

Photo/White house

Forget David Frost, the Nixon interview that we all care about is between him and a chamber full of spotty teenage hacks. Surrounded by local police and US Secret Servicemen, Nixon’s motorcade was welcomed by over 500 students armed with placards and eggs. Classic examples such as “Nixon, crawl back into your hole” and “If you can’t die, at least fade away” showed off the benefits of an Oxford education.

Inside the Union, however, the reception was much warmer and he was subjected to the very lightest of grillings. “I screwed up and I paid the price” was all that he had to say on the Watergate scandal that had simultaneously cost him the Presidency and invented a new suffix.

Julian Assange

Photo/Espen Moe

What waits for Assange then, remains a mystery. With protests arranged and the national press paying close attention, it’s certainly going to be interesting. However, safe behind the glass of a monitor, unlike Nixon or Griffin, if worst comes to the worst he can always pull the plug. That said, after seven months trapped in the Ecuadorian Embassy, he might just be glad to have somebody new to talk to.

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