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BREAKING: University rejects SU motion to ban ‘academic hate speech’

Oxford University has released a ‘Statement on the Importance of Free Speech,’ and has rejected the Academic Hate Speech motion that was passed by Oxford SU student council on Thursday. The University told The Blue: ‘I can confirm that the University has no plans to censor reading materials assigned by our academics.’ 

The Academic Hate Speech Motion passed 28 votes to 11, with 10 abstentions. The motion proposes to create an SU Policy, titled ‘Protection of Transgender, Non-binary, Disabled, Working-class, and Women* Students from Hatred in University Contexts’. The motion mandates the SU to condemn “hateful” material from being included in mandatory teaching, and to lobby for trigger warnings on readings lists and for lectures, tutorials, and examinations with content deemed prejudicial. It attracted no written debate.

The motion says that ‘Any legal framework which does not criminalise speech that discriminates on transphobic, ableist, or misogynistic grounds is deficient, and should not be the starting point for university policy.’

The University told The Blue:

‘Free speech is the lifeblood of a university. It enables the pursuit of knowledge. It helps us approach truth…  [a university] should never prevent speech that is lawful … Inevitably, this will mean that members of the University are confronted with views that some find unsettling, extreme or offensive … The University must therefore foster freedom of expression within a framework of robust civility. Not all theories deserve equal respect … Wherever possible, they should also be exposed to evidence, questioning and argument … neither speakers nor listeners should have any reasonable grounds to feel intimidated or censored.’

The motion was proposed by the former co-chair of Oxford SU LGBTQ+ Campaign, and seconded by the Secretary for Oxford SU Disability Campaign. Both parties have been approached for comment.

The SU Disability Campaign told The Blue:

“The University’s response to this motion is unsatisfactory; the motion on academic hate speech does not in any way require or request that the University censor any teaching materials. As a Campaign we understand and respect the need for free speech within an academic context, and as such the motion focuses in part on the compulsory/examined nature of some content that could adversely affect students.”

The policy prompted controversy among academics and moral philosophers, including professors Richard Dawkins, Jeff McMahan, Julian Savulescu, and Jonathan Herring, who have all weighed in.

Jonathan Herring, who teaches the Medical Law and Ethics module exampled in the motion, told The Blue that ‘If reading lists could not contain any able-ist material, oddly that could mean you could not have some of the leading disability rights writings because those contain a summary of able-ist views.’ 

He suggested that ‘rather than complaining about those courses which do seek to address able-ism seriously and set readings on disability issues, campaigns should address the silence on disability issues found in so many courses’ and ‘should be campaigning to have disability issues discussed in far more courses.’

Richard Dawkins expressed his agreement with Jonathan Herring to The Blue before taking to Twitter:

Prof Julian Savulescu, whose medical ethics paper was mentioned in the SU motion, told The Blue that ‘hate speech is a very strong allegation’ and ‘what they call for is certainly censorship.’ He called it a ‘low point in Oxford academic life’ and would instead prefer ‘calling for more reading which presents the disability activist perspective.

Prof Jeff McMahan — a moral philosopher — told The Blue that ‘the SU motion is a grave mistake,” warning that “it is a mistake to suppose that one can dismiss arguments for a view that one one finds distressing or offensive,’ he said. ‘The only way to deal with arguments with conclusions with which one disagrees is to determine why they are wrong and to explain it to others – that is, to refute them by counterargument.’

Oxford University’s full ‘Statement on the Importance of Free Speech’ reads:

‘Free speech is the lifeblood of a university. It enables the pursuit of knowledge. It helps us approach truth. It allows students, teachers and researchers to become better acquainted with the variety of beliefs, theories and opinions in the world. Recognising the vital importance of free expression for the life of the mind, a university may make rules concerning the conduct of debate but should never prevent speech that is lawful.

‘Inevitably, this will mean that members of the University are confronted with views that some find unsettling, extreme or offensive. The University must therefore foster freedom of expression within a framework of robust civility. Not all theories deserve equal respect. A university values expertise and intellectual achievement as well as openness. 

‘But, within the bounds set by law, all voices or views which any member of our community considers relevant should be given the chance of a hearing. Wherever possible, they should also be exposed to evidence, questioning and argument. As an integral part of this commitment to freedom of expression, we will take steps to ensure that all such exchanges happen peacefully. 

‘With appropriate regulation of the time, place and manner of events, neither speakers nor listeners should have any reasonable grounds to feel intimidated or censored. It is this understanding of the central importance and specific roles of free speech in a university that will underlie the detailed procedures of the University of Oxford.’

The motion in full has been added as an article update: