Students at Exeter, Pembroke, and St. Catherine’s have expressed disapproval over OUSU’s decision to demonstrate against Marine Le Pen’s talk last Thursday.
Pembroke’s JCR passed the motion, “This JCR resolves to condemn the disruptive actions of these protesters.” It criticised OUSU for not protecting the welfare and rights of students, arguing that extremism and intolerance is best countered by free debate and not through disruptive protests. However, they reaffirmed their support for peaceful demonstration.
Ryan Tang, who proposed the motion, told Cherwell, “I decided to propose my motion because it seemed that a lot of Pembroke students were not happy at the way OUSU is politicising itself and supporting disruptive protests without consultation. They all say that we elected them into office, but the reality is that it’s nearly impossible for us to keep tabs on what they decide and attending OUSU Council is not something that appeals to 99 per cent of Oxford students.
“By passing this motion, hopefully we can send a message to OUSU that they need to consult students a bit more when taking political stances instead of just listening to a handful of activists.”
Exeter College’s JCR also passed a motion strongly disapproving of OUSU’s stand, which they believe “took a party political standpoint against Marine Le Pen’s appearance at the Oxford Union and the Front National, an action that should not be in the remit of OUSU regardless of the popularity and validity of the party political views protested against.” They also expressed their disapproval of OUSU mandating the president to send out an email to all Oxford students about the protest.
Exeter JCR president Tutku Bektas told Cherwell, “We came to university to hear and engage with a plurality of views, even those which we may vehemently disagree with. After OUSU passed a motion that condemned Marine Le Pen’s appearance at the Oxford Union, we thought it important to send the message that there are still students that value free speech.”
St. Catherine’s JCR’s OUSU Representative, Christopher Casson, expressed his anger at OUSU’s actions in a blog post entitled ‘I now hate OUSU. Here’s why.’ He said, “We voted to condemn an organisation whose sole purpose is to encourage free speech and debate, for literally doing their job. It isn’t our [OUSU’s] place to start attempting to censor things that go on in the Union. We’re meant to be representing students, sure, but that includes the students that want to hear her talk.”
When asked if St Catz had any plans to disaffiliate, Casson stressed, “We do think that it’s important to be part of the organisation so that we can fight for the changes we want from the inside.”
Nikhil Venkatesh, who proposed the motion to OUSU, said, “I would encourage all common rooms to stick with OUSU. In a democratic system, there will always be some decisions some members disagree with, but the beauty o f OUSU is that anyone from any common room can get involved and change it. I don’t apologise for my motion, or for my participation in the protest. I feel it’s important to point out that the motion was not a motion of ‘no platform’.”
Analysis: Pembroke student Carl Gergs argues that our right to listen should not be threatened
The protesters last Thursday night had every right to challenge a figure who is intolerant against certain individuals and denies them personal freedom concerning religion and opinion. In that sense, Le Pen should not be left unchallenged. However, physically attempting to prevent and intimidate those wishing to listen to such a speaker and condemning not just the Union, but also those curious to challenge Le Pen themselves does not seem right.
The question here is not why protesters felt the need to demonstrate against the views of Marine Le Pen. The question is why the protesters felt the need to condemn her in the way that they did – drawing attention to themselves rather than to the potential slips of the speaker and frightening those both inside and outside the Union.
The atmosphere of intimidation which they fostered almost placed them on the same level as Le Pen – at least when it comes to freedom of speech and tolerance, which are ironically the grounds on which we condemned Marine Le Pen in the first place.
The protesters are ill-informed to believe that the majority – if not all – of the students inside the Union chamber did not condemn Marine Le Pen’s politics. The tough questions with which she found herself faced surely prove that.
Their demands that the Union prevent Le Pen from speaking made us all look like hypocrites. Those protesters kept us from effectively challenging the person we were supposed to. Instead, we ended up at each other’s throats; students against students; OUSU against the Oxford Union. It was supposed to be Oxford against Marine Le Pen. Instead, people entering the debating chamber to vent their anger in an actual discussion, were shamed as “Nazis” and “Fascists”.
What would have happened had there not been protests and, moreover, if those protests had not been spurred by the OUSU motion? Attention would not have been drawn away from what Le Pen actually said – painting her as a martyr for freedom of speech, the entrance to the chamber wouldn’t have been blocked, and more students would have had the opportunity to publicly “challenge Le Pen. We could have debated with a politician whom we all condemn, rather than wasting time debating each other.
One should also question how much blame OUSU has to take for the protests getting out of hand. There will always be chaotic radicals at demonstrations like this. Regardless, protesters, OUSU, and all of us need to learn a lesson from this. Publicly condemning a politician like Marine Le Pen is our right, some might even argue it is our duty. However, turning public outrage against the platform that allows us to challenge politicians like her is unwise. This is not a defense of the Union; it is a defense of the students who actually wanted to show the world how wrong Le Pen is.