Student backlash against open letter signed by Oxford academics

Oxford liberation groups have released an official response to condemn a controversial letter signed by four Oxford academics.

The original letter, entitled “We cannot allow censorship and silencing of individuals” was published by The Observer newspaper on Sunday 15th February. 131 signatories were listed, including Oxford academics Dr Rachel Hewitt, Professor Deborah Cameron, Dr Samantha Lyle and Dr Michael Whitworth.

As well as saying that “universities have a particular responsibility” to support the notion of free speech, the letter criticised groups such as the National Union of Students for no-platforming certain individuals and groups. They added that the notion of “no-platform” has been used “to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists”.

The content of this letter has come under significant criticism. In particular, critics have noted the views expressed towards the trans community and sex workers, with the letter stating: “But today [no-platforming] is being used to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists”.

WomCam and other Oxford liberation groups have issued an official response in the form of a letter, stating that: “We condemn the open letter and ask all of the signatories who are members of Oxford University to retract their signatures and to make public apologies for adding to the discrimination against sex workers and trans people within our community.”.

Tim Squirrell, ex-President of the Cambridge Union, said to The Oxford Student: “There are a couple of issues with the letter. The first is the way it misrepresents the facts, particularly of the Kate Smurthwaite case, in order to fit a narrative of freedom of speech under threat. The second is the way that it attempts to delegitimise protest and social pressure, some of the most important forms of free expression, as ‘illiberal’ and ‘bullying’.

“Open debate is incredibly important in university culture, but trying to silence grassroots activists, who don’t have access to national newspapers and whose ability to express their views is often restricted to protest and other such means, is not the way to go about securing that kind of debate. Finally, there’s the disingenuity of some of the signatories, in particular some trans-exclusionary feminists who’ve had little issue with shouting down trans activists in the past are now talking about censorship and silencing.

“I think it’s fairly clear that if there is censorship or undermining of debate going on in universities and the country as a whole, it’s probably not student activists who are responsible for it.”

Dr Hewitt, member of the English faculty and Wolfson College, was one of the signatories. She said: “I signed the letter because I believe that universities have a responsibility to enable their students to develop critical thinking through exposure to a wide range of arguments. Students are certainly not compelled to agree with speakers or opinions they consider objectionable, and have every right to peacefully protest against them.

“But I believe universities should withstand pressure to prevent all students from encountering views that are are non-libellous and do not incite to physical violence, and are therefore within the realm of legitimate political debate. The letter’s signatories include transgender people and the LGBT rights campaigner Peter Tatchell: it is not ‘trans-exclusionary’ to defend principles of democratic political exchange”.

Rowan Davis, Trans representative for LGTBQ Soc, commented: “Trans people are not a homogeneous group and to use a small number of us to legitimate violence (that is, forcing us to allow bigots into our homes) is instrumentalising and wrong”.

The letter also caused discussion on the Facebook group Cuntry Living, with a thread about the letter receiving over 440 comments from students. One student wrote: “hate this attitude that universities are somehow there to serve the outside world over and above the students who go there”.

One of the high-profile individuals who signed the letter was Cambridge Classics professor Mary Beard, who wrote on Twitter that she “went to bed wanting to weep” following the backlash on social media.

Beard particularly noted that “at least one of the examples cited in such a letter will always be challenged or turn out to be more complicated. So you have to be clear that the big point transcends any one case”.

She continued: “I feel confident that I am not a transphobe or whorephobe as accused and could provide references to that effect (though I realise that prejudices are not best perceived by those who hold them)!

“More fundamentally, I think there is something very weird going on if me and Peter Tatchell (never mind the other 130 people) are held up as the enemy of the SW and trans community when (whatever the micro arguments are) we are on the same damned side.”