Oxford University warned over free‑speech failures Sunday Times 12.04.20

The original article is here.

An Oxford University college has been told to overhaul its rules to protect free speech after a history professor was banned from speaking at a conference she helped to organise after pressure from trans activists.

Selina Todd, professor of modern history at the university, was invited to give a speech at the Women’s Liberation 50th Anniversary Celebration, organised by the Oxford International Women’s Festival and held at Exeter College this year. Shortly before she was due to speak, her invitation was withdrawn and the event went ahead without her.

Todd’s links to Woman’s Place UK, which campaigns for separate spaces and services for women, were said to be behind the decision. Trans activists have criticised the organisation.

Todd was one of two women to be no-platformed at the university in less than a week. A few days later Amber Rudd, the former home secretary, was prevented from speaking at Christ Church. She had been asked to talk in the run-up to International Women’s Day, but students criticised her handling of the Windrush affair.

Yesterday Rudd, who said she had also faced opposition when speaking at St Andrews this year, said: “What you have got is a highly politicised, small minority of activists who take it upon themselves to terrorise the majority of students who would like to hear from speakers.”

She said it was “so wet” of people to try to silence others. “In my day you would turn up to hear speakers, you would ask questions, you would protest.”

Last week a complaint panel told Exeter that Todd’s right to free speech had been infringed and that the college must review its free-speech rules to avoid any repeat of such an incident. The university has de-registered the student society that no-platformed Rudd.

The universities minister Michelle Donelan has warned that the government is prepared to change the law to compel universities and colleges to guarantee free speech. Individual colleges at Oxford and Cambridge are exempt from provisions in the 1986 Education Act requiring universities to protect free speech.

In a letter to the Free Speech Union, which complained about Todd’s treatment, Professor Sir Rick Trainor, the rector of Exeter, said it had agreed to review its procedures urgently.

“The [complaint] panel has asked the college to consider strengthening its procedures with respect to third-party bookings in order to minimise the possibility of such events recurring, which the college intends to do as a matter of urgency, in consultation with the university,” said Trainor. He described what happened as “deeply regrettable”.

Toby Young, founder of the Free Speech Union, said: “Ministers have warned that they will take action if universities do not put their house in order and protect free speech. Two notable women were no-platformed at Oxford in less than a week. The loophole [for Oxbridge colleges] needs to be closed.”

Michael Biggs, associate professor of sociology at Oxford, said: “What you see with Selina is the tip of the iceberg . . . There is a real fear hanging over people with dissident opinions that they may not get jobs. Colleges need to promote academic freedom.”

@SianGriffiths6