Signatories of free speech letter under fire

Four Oxford academics are signatories to an open letter published in The Observer criticising recent attempts to clamp down on free speech at British universities. The letter, entitled ‘We Cannot allow censorship and silencing of individuals’, was published on Sunday 15th February. 131 academics signed it, including Dr Rachel Hewitt, Professor Deborah Cameron, Dr Samantha Lythe, and Dr Michael Whitworth.

This comes after weeks of controversy over free speech in Oxford. Up to 400 students protested again Marine Le Pen’s talk at the Union in 3rd Week and the OUSU Executive Committee signed an open letter asking the Oxford Union to refrain from inviting such speakers again. OUSU also formally condemned the views of Marine Le Pen and her party, the Front National.

Professor Cameron told Cherwell she had “no problem with people standing outside the Oxford Union to register their objections to the politics of Marine Le Pen. That isn’t censorship. My problem would be with a ban on Marine Le Pen speaking in Oxford at all.”

Jan Nedvidek, a second year PPE student at Christ Church, went further, stating to Cherwell, “You can’t believe in free speech and in ‘no-platforming’ at the same time. When you say someone should not be given a platform, you say that their views are too bad for other people to listen to them, and that they shouldn’t be allowed to air them. This is clearly anti-liberal.”

The academics in the letter argue against the censorship of speakers at universities. They point out that ‘no-platforming’ used to be a tactic used against self-proclaimed fascists and Holocaust deniers. The authors of the letter contend that it is now deployed regularly against anyone who does not fit with the views of a student body. The signatories stated, “We call on universities and other organisations to stand up to attempts at intimidation and affirm their support for the basic principles of democratic political exchange.”

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Dr Whitworth told Cherwell, “Universities should be a place for debates, conversations, and disagreements, and for finding out more about each others’ views and reasons for holding them.”

However, Oxford liberation and minorities groups have criticised the letter for discriminating against sex workers and trans people and delegitimising protest. The original letter argued ‘no-platforming’ had been used “to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists.” WomCam published an official response to this, condemning the open letter and asking “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.”

OUSU VP for Women Anna Bradshaw added, “We are not asking that these people be censored and of course, we do not have the power to censor then. However we are requesting that they do not voice these damaging views on our campuses and consequently, in our homes.”