Now they’re banning Christians at Oxford

Organisers of the freshers’ fair at Balliol College, Oxford, have banned the Christian Union from holding a stall and speaking to new students. Why? Because their presence would apparently be ‘alienating’ for other students, and could have constituted a ‘microaggression’.

Justifying the ban, Freddy Potts, vice-president of Balliol College’s Junior Common Room (JCR), argued that the presence of a representative from the Christian Union would cause ‘potential harm’ to new students. ‘Historically, Christianity’s influence on many marginalised communities has been damaging in its methods of conversion and rules of practice, and is still used in many places as an excuse for homophobia and certain forms of neo-colonialism’, he said.

The Christian Union showed its correspondence with Potts to the press, and despite outcry from several students and journalists, it was not allowed to attend the freshers’ fair. This is ludicrous. But it’s also a good example of the patronising and mollycoddling attitude behind much of today’s campus censoriousness. Today’s censors have resorted to pretending that censorship is good because it protects the welfare of students.

It should come as no surprise to learn that Potts is a member of the JCR’s welfare committee. And he justified the ban by arguing that blocking the Christian Union would ‘be a way of helping to avoid making any students feel initially unwelcome within Balliol’. Is it part of a welfare committee’s remit to police speech? How does Potts know that the Christian Union makes students feel unwelcome? Have students at Balliol asked for such a ban?

The answer is, no – this was a top-down decision from organisers seeking to silence debate. Censorship in the name of protecting people’s feelings is still censorship. All universities (especially one as prestigious as Oxford) should encourage the free and open debate of all ideas – including religious beliefs.

Students aren’t vulnerable, they’re capable adults. And those lucky enough to study at Oxford will surely be aware of religious beliefs – a Christian Union stall is hardly going to put them off their studies. If we succumb to arguments about the vulnerability of students, we put freedom of speech in peril. University should encourage students to challenge themselves to face difficult topics and grapple with opposing views. Banning certain ideas or beliefs from campus insinuates that students can’t deal with academic debate.

Following widespread criticism of the ban, organisers at Balliol have agreed to let the Christian Union attend future fairs. But in order to prevent further attacks on free speech, Oxford students must continue to stand up to the campus censors.

Charlie Peters is a writer and a student.

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