After a week of turmoil in the Oxford Union, Kostas Chryssanthopoulos, the Union Librarian, walked out of the Thursday debate following an impassioned speech in which he declared that he refused to “sit next to a President who does not believe in freedom of speech”.
The Librarian’s intervention comes after a week in which the Oxford Union has seen itself embroiled in controversy as the Union President sought to use the society’s money to cover his legal expenses after a defamatory article was published by student website The Tab. The decision, which was passed on Monday, was then challenged by a Special Adjournment Motion proposed by Chryssanthopoulos and signed by 39 other members.
Following the proposal of this motion, an extraordinary Standing Committee meeting was called to withdraw the decision to cover the President’s legal fees, which was passed by 11 votes to 3. However, a number of members remained dissatisfied that the issue was not to be debated at the open debate on Thursday.
The Librarian’s intervention followed the customary opening speeches by the President, Ben Sullivan, and the Secretary, Lisa Wehden, which are usually reserved for private business to do with the society. However, the Librarian then launched into a two-minute speech in protest against the Sullivan, in which he claimed that, “I refuse to sit next to a President who does not believe in freedom of speech. And I refuse to sit next to a President who has lied to members and tried to cover it all up with our money”.
“I cannot in all good conscience continue to sit here tonight and remain silent in the face of a President who shows such disdain for the society he has pledged to serve”.
Chryssanthopoulos claimed that his attempts to have a “free and open discussion” were “blocked”, adding that “If we had nothing to worry about then why should it ever matter where such a discussion takes place”.
Following his speech, Chryssanthopoulos walked out of the debating chamber to strong applause, leaving the Librarian’s seat vacant.
Charles Malton, the Union Treasurer, invited members who wished to direct questions to the President to do so after the main debate had finished in their own speeches. The debate, which proceeded as normal, asked the house to debate the motion “Promiscuity is a virtue, not a vice”.
In his following speech, Malton said, “I know that as a committee we voted at the start of term to organise expenditure to protect the reputation of the union, there were libellous claims made in a newspaper article which had nothing to do with ‘the banter squadron’ as you may have heard it reported in The Tab, it was far more serious, and damaging, and false.
“As a committee we made the decision that it was damaging to the union to allow that to happen, that those false claims about things that went on at meetings should be put right, because those kinds of falsity should not be allowed to be published [to a wide audience] and that’s why I, along with many others voted to pay the legal fees, to defend the union, not to defend Ben Sullivan, but to defend the union. They [the lawyers] were employed not in a personal capacity to defend Ben Sullivan, they were employed by this organisation, to protect its reputation against things which were incredibly damaging, incredibly serious, and incredibly untrue.”
The full text of Kostas Chryssanthopoulos’ speech is available here.