Free speech! Only if you have an Oxford Union card…
According to new UK government plans, universities and students’ unions will be expected to ban ‘non-violent extremist’ speakers. But this week it was revealed that the Oxford and Cambridge debating unions will not be subject to these new anti-terror measures.
While the Oxford and Cambridge Unions draw their membership from matriculated students of Oxford and Cambridge respectively, neither are officially affiliated to the universities. They are debating societies that style themselves as private members’ clubs.
What’s more, both have admirable records when it comes to inviting, and challenging, controversial speakers. The Oxford Union is often referred to as ‘the last bastion of free speech in the Western world’. The ethos of the union is that more speech, not less, is the answer. And it seems that, when it comes to tackling pernicious, Islamist ideas, the government is happy to leave the Oxford and Cambridge unions to it.
Herein lies the problem. Their exemption from the legislation implies that because their members are, well, a bit posh, they are somehow better equipped to hear and debate with extremist speakers. But whether you study at Oxford, Cambridge, Bolton or Mohammed Emwazi’s Westminster, all students must have the freedom to confront offensive views on campus.
The new anti-terror measures are ultimately doomed to fail. They will only push extremist views underground – romanticising them and leaving them unchallenged. We need to bring them out into the light of day – give them a platform, challenge them and defeat them. This is a fight that all students can and should be involved in. You shouldn’t need a union-membership card to qualify for free speech.
Sam Slater is a student at the University of Oxford and an organiser for spiked’s Down With Campus Censorship! campaign.
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