Image description: Oxford SU logo
Oxford University Student Union (SU) sabbatical officers have released a statement on the controversial ‘Academic Hate Speech Motion’. In it, they stress the “difference between debate and abuse”, suggesting that the two may have been confused.
The VP Access & Academic Affairs and VP Welfare & Equal Opportunities jointly released the statement today which read, “Academics and students must be free to critically engage with contentious texts… however, the academic platform should not be used merely to disseminate inflammatory views” They argued that these views may be an active cause of harm to students.
The statement continues to assert that both academic freedom and protection for students from “abusive sentiment” must be upheld.
Despite the motion garnering heavy criticism, the statement is not in response to media attention. It is a direct result of the motion, which as well as creating a new SU policy, mandates the “VP Access and Academic Affairs & VP Welfare & Equal Opportunities to issue a statement condemning the use of hateful material in mandatory teaching”.
The motion also mandates the statement to highlight that “many of the groups against whom the speech is directed are not currently protected by criminal legislation, and that therefore use of criminal legislation as a benchmark for academic free speech is insufficient to protect many disadvantaged groups within the University against speech which causes them harm.”
On 30th May, the Student Council passed a motion entitled ‘Academic Hate Speech’ that aims to eliminate hate speech against disability, gender identity, and socioeconomic status from teaching materials.
The motion advised that courses containing ‘hateful material’ should adapt their content and reading lists, and at a minimum put trigger warnings on mandatory teaching.
The University protects academic speech as long as it is within the law, and so the motion notes the various forms of hate speech that have yet to be criminalised. It notes that several disadvantaged groups are not yet protected by legislation, despite the hate speech that is directed at them.
In its statement, the SU seems to agree that the current “benchmark for academic free speech” is deficient. They go on to stress that the voice of disadvantaged groups should be “represented on reading lists”, pointing to diversifying the curriculum and praising the Law Faculty, whose course was criticised within the motion, for their efforts to do so already.
Students and professors have responded to the motion arguing that such material is necessary in order to identify the weaknesses of the ‘hateful’ arguments and challenge them.
Maya Nerissa Thomas, President of The Oxford Society for Free Discourse, reflects many students opinion on the matter. Thomas told The Oxford Student, “There is no doubt that the SU means well. However, in assuming that minorities are unable to engage with hateful speech (particularly in an academic context), the motion reveals an unfortunate trend towards the infantilisation of minority groups. Sheltering students from unpleasant ideas does nothing to halt their perpetuation. In order to do more than stick one’s head in the sand, the university should encourage all its students to study the weaknesses of hateful ideas and destroy them through continuous (academic) criticism. The voices of communities affected by hateful speech are particularly powerful and unmissable in this endeavour.”
In regards to the more controversial aspects of the motion, the Student Union discloses: “if you feel that some of the nuances of this debate may have been lost due to the restrictions of the online format, please feedback.”