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Emails reveal Government ministers “losing patience” over freedom of speech issues

Oxford University’s public condemnation of UNWomen Oxford UK Society’s decision to ‘no-platform’ Amber Rudd came after communication with the Department of Education and internal disagreement over the proposed statement.

The society cancelled the International Women’s Day event, which was hosting a talk by Amber Rudd, 30 minutes before it was scheduled to begin, due to protests over Rudd’s links to the Windrush scandal and her time in government.

Emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal internal discussion over the public response of the University. The statement initially proposed by the Public Affairs Directorate was published in its original form on 6th March, the day after the cancellation. The University deregistered UNWomen Oxford UK as an affiliated society in late March.  

The Vice-Chancellor spoke with the Secretary of State for Education’s Special Adviser the morning after Rudd’s ‘no-platforming’, following the Department for Education asking the University to “talk to someone as soon as possible.” The University also had “off the record” information that “senior Government ministers are losing patience with the sector in general, and what they perceive as slowness and inconsistency in response to freedom of issues [sic].”

The Proctors had suggested that the proposed full statement be replaced by a more “succinct message” which would be “in line with how the University has responded to other such clubs and society concerns.”

The head of University Communications responded saying the “wider political context” meant that to “deflect criticism of Oxford” the University had to “unambiguously condemn” the students’ decision. This referred to an expected Department for Education announcement of “tougher regulation/ legislation around freedom of speech.”

Later that day, Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, called for the University to take “robust action” against the “unacceptable” decision. The next day, he wrote in The Times that “if universities can’t defend free speech, the government will,” praising the University of Oxford for adopting “strong codes of conduct that champion academic free speech, explicitly recognising that this may sometimes cause offence.”

The Proctors’ Office had also recommended the proposed statement be less “emotive”, through removing reference to the University’s “feelings”. They suggested deleting the statement “taking necessary steps to ensure that this cannot be repeated”, saying it committed the University to “something that is not possible to 100% enforce.”

One staff member described the Public Affairs Directorate as “blowing the situation up” and that they were “worried” they would “make it worse”. They said: “I managed to see sight of the briefing (they don’t typically share as it’s not us responding) and I have gone back to them as I didn’t like what they were saying and some of it was incorrect.”

The University was also concerned about the formal complaint to be made by the Free Speech Union, run by Toby Young. He had lodged a complaint to Exeter College about the ‘no-platforming’ of Selina Todd earlier that week. The Public Affairs Directorate noted: “no doubt Toby Young will pick this up – two no platform issues in under a week related to us.” The complaint to Exeter College is described as having “detailed understanding of national legislation and the college’s own policies.”

The Mail on Sunday reported that this “correspondence between senior university staff… shows a strong statement denouncing the cancellation was only published after pressure from the Government and from political campaigner Toby Young.”

The University told Cherwell: “Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor has a long history of defending freedom of speech and the Secretary of State had nothing to do with the University’s position on this matter.

“The University strongly disapproved of the decision to disinvite Amber Rudd and the Proctors took just and proportionate action according to the existing policies which underpin the University’s stance on freedom of speech.

“The decision to deregister the UNWomen Oxford UK Society was taken by the University proctors because its conduct was in breach of the University’s code of conduct for student societies.”

Toby Young told Cherwell: “I was pleased to see the Free Speech Union being taken seriously by the Oxford authorities. From now on, any university that fails to uphold free speech can expect to receive a letter of complaint from the FSU and those letters will be copied to the Secretary of State for Education. University administrators know that if they don’t uphold free speech the Secretary of State is minded to take action.”

The society, which has since changed its name to United Women Oxford Student Society, defended the decision to disinvite Amber Rudd on its Facebook page: “We would like to begin by directly apologising for our decision to invite Amber Rudd to talk at our society, in particular to the BAME students of Oxford and other communities affected by her policies. We recognise that we should have addressed this issue upon deciding whether to invite her. We stand by our decision to cancel the event and show solidarity with the BAME community.”

The Committee of Oxford College JCR Presidents (PresCom) wrote an open letter criticising the University’s response to the society’s cancellation of Amber Rudd’s talk. The letter said the response demonstrated “the widely felt sentiment that the University is quick to abandon its students in the face of unwarranted backlash from national newspapers and high-profile individuals.” It also described “a lack of consistency as to when the University will take a stance in response to national headlines; in previous cases, the University has chosen to distance itself and not intervene.”

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