John’s votes against new officer to defend freedom of speech

The motion passed narrowly at its first reading two weeks ago, but failed to pass at a JCR meeting on Sunday.

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St John’s have dropped plans to introduce a ‘religions & beliefs’ officer to protect students’ freedom of speech.

The original motion argued that those who hold certain religions or beliefs are “at risk of unjust discrimination, yet have no liberation position in the JCR”. It said the role was necessary after a series of incidents of alleged “religious discrimination” at Oxford.

The motion passed narrowly at its first reading two weeks ago, but failed to pass at a JCR meeting on Sunday. Students instead passed a motion to endorse the college’s freedom of speech policy.

The original said: “students are entitled to hold personal beliefs and participate in open discussion about those beliefs without fear of being banned from college/ JCR events, being discriminated against, or having their events hijacked by protesters.”

The motion called for the creation of a Religions and Beliefs Officer, who was to have a budget of £300, with the responsibility of “representing all the religions and beliefs held by students in the JCR”. A separate ‘Religions & Beliefs sub-committee’, consisting of five to ten people, would be set up to “represent the range of beliefs held by students in the JCR.”

At the meeting two weeks ago, JCR members questioned whether the religions and beliefs officer could adequately represent the faiths of all College students.

Concerns were also raised about the religions & beliefs subcommittee potentially becoming dominated by Christians, the most common faith in the College, and therefore not representing the beliefs of other students.

“One individual would not be able to represent all the religions and beliefs that the students hold,” one student said.

Another said: “As the dominant belief in the college is Christianity, and many other beliefs have far fewer students, how would you ensure that there is representation on the sub-committee from these other groups.”

Despite opposition, the motion narrowly passed in a secret ballot, with 26 votes in favour, 24 against, and eight abstentions.

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This Sunday, the religions and beliefs motion was put to a vote again, as it was constitutionally mandated to pass twice. However, at its second reading, the motion failed, with 34 votes for, 44 against and seven abstentions.

Instead, an amended freedom of belief motion, noting: “there has been some controversy recently within the JCR concerning what is acceptable as freedom of speech” and resolving to “endorse the College freedom of speech policy”, passed almost unanimously, with 81 votes in favour, one vote against, and two abstentions.

The initial two-part freedom of belief motion noted concerns about specific incidents on campus which had been “interpreted by some as religious discrimination”.

The motion highlighted the Balliol JCR committee banning representatives of the Christian Union from its freshers’ fair in early October, over concerns their presence could lead to “alienation or micro-aggression” for new students.

The decision was condemned by a JCR motion which accused the JCR of “barring the participation of specific faith-based organisations” and describing the step as “a violation of free speech [and] a violation of religious freedom”. St John’s JCR committee declined to comment on the motions.

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