Councillor criticises Oxford’s free speech record

A local Oxford councillor has criticised Oxford University’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for freedom of speech and open debate.

Labour councillor Mary Clarkson, representing the ward of Marston, told The Oxford Student: “My view is that universities have for centuries been the places where debate, freedom of expression and thinking the unthinkable have been permitted to a much greater degree than in the societies outside their walls.

“I am always concerned when I read that debates on controversial subjects are cancelled for fear of causing upset.”

Clarkson made clear that she was speaking in a personal capacity, and not in her capacity as a councillor.

She continued: “I am always concerned when I read that debates on controversial subjects are cancelled for fear of causing upset. Provided that there is no incitement to hatred or violence then no subject should be off limits for debate in my opinion.

“I accept that the price I pay for living in a democratic and free society where I can practice my faith and engage openly in politics, is the risk I will be offended by others’ criticism of my views and beliefs. I think it’s a price worth paying.”

Writing on Twitter, Clarkson also made specific reference to last term’s cancellation of an abortion debate at Christ Church College: “Out of respect for #CharlieHebdo and free speech, will Oxford University now allow November’s cancelled abortion debate to take place?”

The debate, hosted by anti-abortion group Oxford Students for Life, aimed to discuss Britain’s ‘abortion culture’, but was cancelled following considerable pressure from Christ Church JCR and the wider student feminist community.

Christ Church student Will Neaverson, one of those originally involved in the JCR’s opposition to the debate, disagreed with the councillor’s comments: “I stand by our decision to protect our students […] No Free Speech advocate would state that everyone has the responsibility to allow anyone into their home. [Christ Church] is our home, it is where we live, and it is not a public forum.”

Tim Squirrel, ex-President of the Cambridge University Union, also defended the record of university campuses against Clarkson’s claims: “I don’t think that Oxford or Cambridge or anywhere else have become ‘unsafe’ for speech or expression. As students we’ve begun to take account of the safety and wellbeing of our fellow students, and many of us value that wellbeing over and above the claims of bigots to have the right to speak using whatever platform they wish.”

Squirrel, who despite attending Cambridge University has become well-known among Oxford’s activist and feminist communities, added: “We don’t want to further legitimate views which are damaging and threatening to vulnerable members of society by granting those views a prestigious platform.

“It’s not about free speech. It’s about privileged speech, and common human empathy.”