Students gathered on the High Street this evening to protest the invitation of political commentator Brendan O’Neill to a dinner held at Queen’s College.
The protesters, who were largely made up of members of Oxford SU campaigns, said they were speaking out against the “hate speech” spread by O’Neill.
O’Neill, editor of Spiked and a regular columnist in The Spectator, was in Oxford to attend a dinner with the Addison Society at Queen’s College. The student-run society, open only to members of the college, invites speakers to have a formal dinner with them “before sharing their thoughts on a topic of their choice”.
O’Neill told Cherwell that he planned to “criticise the ideology of transgenderism” and “make the case for freedom of speech in all matters of life” at the event.
A statement issued by the Oxford SU LGBTQ+ campaign, who helped to organise the demonstration, said that O’Neill’s invitation was “tantamount to an endorsement of his violently transphobic, homophobic, misogynistic and ableist views by the Addison Society and the Queen’s College.”
Katt Walton, the incoming SU Vice-President for Women and former co-chair of the ‘It Happens Here’ campaign, said: “This protest is exercising students right to free speech and response. We are calling Brendan O’Neill out for his comments and actions, which aren’t controversial or political, they are hate speech.
“Brendan O’Neill defends himself through the veil of free speech, but we know that the law in this country does not and will not extend to free hate speech.”
The LGBTQ+ campaign said that, in additional to attacking the rights of transgender people, O’Neill “espouses harmful views against many other structurally oppressed groups”, including other members of the LGBTQ+ community, survivors of sexual abuse, and disabled groups.
In the past, O’Neill has suggested that victims of abuse by Jimmy Savile should “keep it to themselves”, and has derided the increased acceptance in Western countries to homosexuality as “queer imperialism”.
Speaking outside the event, O’Neill told Cherwell: “I think [the protest] is pathetic, [the protestors] should grow up. There’s far more important things to protest in the world than me giving this speech in Oxford.
“The only hateful speech I hear around university campuses these days actually comes from student activists who casually demonise and libel anyone who disagrees with them. That’s a far more hateful form of speech than anything I plan to say tonight”.
President and vice-president of the Addison Society, Robert Holbrook and Paddy Hannam, told Cherwell: “We do not see the invitation as tantamount to an endorsement, any more than we do any of the other invitations we have given this year.
“Indeed, it would be pretty hard to endorse both Brendan O’Neill and, say, the Corbynite journalist Anna Minton who we invited earlier this year, considering their many points of disagreement.
“The dinners are not celebrations of the speakers we have, but a chance to hear from them and ask questions of them, should guests wish to. The assumption that we must agree with Brendan is patently absurd.”
They added: “It can be difficult to draw the distinction between hate speech and free speech, but it is important to keep the boundaries as wide as possible to ensure that nobody is silenced who has been wrongly accused.
“We do not see Mr O’Neil as a hate speaker, certainly not in the legal sense of the word, a testament to which is that fact that he has never been prosecuted for hate speech.
“Brendan’s speech clarified his position regarding the right of trans people to exist, which rebuts the main charge by the protesters regarding his views constituting hate speech.”
Last week, the Queen’s College JCR Equalities and Welfare teams warned students not to attend the event.
In an email to undergraduates, they said: “Brendan O’Neill is recognised for his controversial opinions, many of which have sparked accusations of transphobia, homophobia and misogyny.
“As the Equalities Team we do not endorse the views held by Brendan O’Neill and express serious concern for the impact his words may have for members of the JCR.
“Whilst we support debating and discussing ideas, we believe that a formal dinner fails to provide an appropriate or adequate platform to discuss and challenge contentious political views.”
The Addison Society’s president wrote in an open reply to the Equalities and Welfare committees’ email: “We decided to invite Brendan O’Neill to the Addison Society because he is a stimulating and thought-provoking speaker, and because we understand inclusivity, at least in part, to be about giving representation to varied political positions, and giving the opportunity to members of the JCR to engage with and challenge them.
“These necessarily include opinions which many members of college, including ourselves, may at times find disagreeable or offensive.”