Current Affairs

Oxford Union forming ‘taskforce’ to prepare for Debra Soh but continuing with event

In an Access Committee meeting at the Oxford Union today, it was decided that a ‘taskforce’ will be set up to discuss how best to question noted transphobe Debra Soh at her Union event this term. Nonetheless, the event will be going ahead with President James Price citing the Union’s aim to “uphold freedom of speech”. 

In the past few days, while many, including students and committee members, have called for Debra Soh to be de-platformed due to hateful her views towards the transgender community, Union President James Price remains steadfast in his stance that this would not happen. This afternoon, he  cited section  2B of The Oxford Union rules and regulations, which “seeks to uphold freedom of speech and expression of its members and guests”, but added that this did not mean that the Union was to provide a “bully pulpit” for anybody, regardless of political hue or the controversy of their beliefs. 

One Access Committee member commenced the discussion on the upcoming debate by making it clear that Soh’s transphobia should not be an “afterthought” as this was likely to lead to members coming to “yell something at the end”.. Rather, it was suggested that questions could be submitted prior to the event or “anonymously” to give the impression to the LGBTQ+ community that the debate was being run by “caring people”. Committee members also added that individuals would be able to come forward to serve as consultation points for the President. A ‘taskforce’ was proposed as a way to help this come to fruition. 

Accepting the creation of a ‘taskforce’ on Soh’s appearance, Price argued that the best course of action was to interview Soh, “fully equipped with all the criticisms” of her position. He stated that this would help him to interrogate her beliefs to the fullest extent and help “tease out some of the nuance” in her argument. This is despite the fact that these beliefs are deeply offensive to some members both of the Union and the wider Oxford community, and that the SU’s LGBTQ+ Campaign has released a statement strongly criticising this event. 

Price continued that he would not see the Oxford Union reduced to an “angry Twitter mob” and declared that the Union was the “last bastion of free speech”. This defence of the Union’s principles comes after Price was elected despite describing his candidacy as a “joke”.

In response, members of the committee questioned Price’s position, with one adding that at a certain point, free speech can become “harmful” and doesn’t represent a “get out of jail free card”. They were worried that it was being used as a blanket statement to detract from what could be hate speech.

The committee’s discussion then moved onto the form that the ‘taskforce’ would take. Multiple members dismissed the idea of directly reaching out to Oxford LGBTQ+ Society or LGBTQ+ members of the Union, in part because they expected to be “slapped in the face” due to their problematic decision. Price was keen to be seen not to be “abnegating responsibility” through the creation of the taskforce. 

However, concern remained that the taskforce might look “reactionary” and that it could thus potentially become a “long-term” innovation to look at who is invited to the Union for future Term Cards. 

The Union bursar added that she had seen many contentious speakers come and go in her time working with the Union and that students were at the University to “learn” and “develop”. She advocated “hear[ing] unpleasant things” so as to put them into “context”. Reiterating Price’s earlier point, she said this process was what the Union is “about”. 

This was again met with one officer retorting that people are exposed to offensive views “day in, day out”, and thus shouldn’t feel excluded from Union debates by having to hear these hurtful views repeated in the Union itself. He suggested that, as such, Term Cards ought to include information that would make members aware in advance that they might feel offended by certain speakers.

Ultimately, Price established that he disagreed with some of his fellow committee members on principle. He was keen to preserve free speech at all costs and thus, with the creation of the taskforce, shall be continuing ahead with the event.

The Oxford Union has been approached for comment.

Image Credits: Flickr

Mitchell Marshall

Mitch (he/ him) is Editor-in-Chief for Trinity term 2021 as well as a long-suffering Sunderland fan, keen runner and general sports obsessive. His other interests include indie music, arthouse cinema, and coffee.