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Free speech fallacies

Oxford University student Clare Fisher writes in to tell us her views on the recent controversy surrounding the Oxford Union's decision to hold a debate on free speech including the controversial head of the Far Right British National Party (BNP), Nick Griffin, and Holocaust denier David Irving.

On Monday night Oxford city centre was, rather atypically, the site of mass political activism. Hundreds of people gathered to protest against the Oxford Union’s 'Free Speech forum', at which David Irving, a convicted holocaust denier, and Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party, were to speak. The well-worn debate over the nature and extent of free speech was coming to a head outside what is the world's most prestigious debating society.

As a student at the University, I do not agree with my JCR (representative student body) who voted not to take an official stance on the issue and I think it was an outrage that the two speakers were invited. For me, it symbolized how free speech has become an abstract dogma that is completely divorced from reality; what is really achieved when a 'free speech forum' leads many students, particularly those who are Jewish or from ethnic minorities, to feel marginalized and unsafe? And why were no Islamic extremists who target the West not invited? Because it is acceptable to employ the ruse of free speech to make minority students feel under threat, but never those of a white, upper middle-class, nominally Christian background, who make up the majority of Oxford students.

It is no coincidence that the wooly defense of free speech is so often wielded by high profile establishment figures to allow them to get away with attacking the more vulnerable. Take the recent controversy over Martin Amis, the influential British writer who has been criticized for his comments on the British Muslim community, such as saying that it 'needs to get its house in order'. When these racist comments were shown up for what they were, his critics were accused of being enemies of free speech. This is reminiscent of the Oxford Union debate in that free speech is, paradoxically, evoked by the establishment to stifle debate so that they can go on attacking those on the margins.

The fact that so many students and ex-Union members have been arguing that the debate was merely a harmless intellectual experiment betrays the fact that so many at Oxford have come from very privileged, insulated backgrounds and are unwilling or unable to imagine what life might be like for those who are not so lucky. This raises important issues about the scale of inequality in the UK and Oxford's admission process. Yet despite this, there was a huge turn out at the demonstration against the debate last night, showing that many Oxford students can empathize, and realize that inviting two speakers who have been known to incite racial hatred, is no harmless intellectual experiment.

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