Lib Dem MEP Catherine Bearder has written to the University Vice-Chancellor after being ‘uninvited’ from a panel debate at the Congress of Polish Student Societies, which took place last weekend.
In the letter, seen by Cherwell, Bearder wrote: “I am sure you are aware that the Equality and Human Rights Commission recently released new guidance on defending free speech in universities and ensuring campuses remain a forum for open debate.
“I hope you are able to speak to the Congress of Polish Students organisers and the Oxford University Polish student society about the debate and explain to them that they must adhere to this guidance for future Congresses.”
Bearder was originally invited to debate the pro-Brexit Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski on the impacts of Brexit on European countries on a panel called “Poland and Brexit – Friends or Foes”.
Bearder’s invitation to the conference was withdrawn on Friday after she tweeted: “I’m debating Daniel Kawczynski MP in Oxford this Saturday in front of Polish university students studying in the UK. When I say debating, I mean trying to put the little unicorns Daniel lets free every now and then back in their stables.”
The Congress, which happens annually, is a 2-day event aiming to debate issues relevant to Polish students in the UK, provide networking opportunities for Polish students and workshops with Polish young professionals to provide career opportunities. It attracts over 400 members of Polish student societies across the UK.
Oxford University Polish Society invited Stefan Kasprzyk, a Liberal Democrat who supported Remain, to replace Bearder.
The University Polish Society explained their decision, saying: “We decided to invite Mr Stefan Kasprzyk instead of Mrs Catherine Bearder to our discussion panel collectively, as the Conference’s organising committee. An online exchange, primarily concerned with issues irrelevant to the Polish student community in the UK, caused concerns that the panel debate would not be focused on the topic of Brexit in the Polish context, but instead it would be overshadowed by issues specific to internal British political controversies.”
In her letter to the Vice-Chancellor, Bearder continued: “I find it totally unacceptable that a debate held on University premises called the “Brexit debate” with two opposing viewpoints on the issue would deem it appropriate to drop a participant because of “negative attention towards a tweet.” Oxford University has a proud and world renowned tradition of free speech and should not accept this kind of behaviour, which looks like censorship on campus, lightly.”
“What was really shocking, though, is that when Polish journalist Jakub Krupa asked why I was uninvited, the organisers said that I “pulled out”.
Oxford University Polish Society said: “Firstly, we would like to apologise to Mrs Catherine Bearder and all concerned for the timing and manner in which we communicated the change of arrangements, and for any upset caused. We aim to hold ourselves to a high professional standard, which we failed to meet in the way the change was conducted.
“However, we strongly deny the charges of stifling free speech, let alone censorship. We are deeply committed to free speech and consider it to be an important part of our identity as a student body. In organising the conference, we are doing our utmost to ensure that the conditions for free debate are ensured and that a range of views are duly represented. We therefore invited Mr Stefan Kasprzyk, a Liberal Democrat and a vocal supporter of the Remain campaign, to represent views that are opposed to Mr Kawczynski’s. We therefore consider charges in that matter to be unfounded.
As a team responsible for continuing the 12 years of tradition of social activity of the Polish students’ diaspora in the United Kingdom, we would like to apologise. We hope that this unfortunate event will not overshadow the importance of debates held at the 12th Congress, focused on the role of Polish students and their organisations in British civil society.
“We have also reached out to apologise to Mrs Catherine Bearder personally.”
A University spokesperson said: “The University played no role in this decision. The University is strongly committed to freedom of speech and we encourage our students to debate and engage with a range of views.”