Monday, October 05, 2015

Oxford: where free speech goes to die

A student magazine called No Offence has been banned for being offensive

No Offence – founded by Oxford student Jacob Williams and Oxford local Lulie Tanett – is a magazine recently set up to ‘promote debate and publicise ideas people are afraid to express’. According to Williams, it grew out of a Facebook group called Open Oxford – a ‘non-partisan Facebook discussion group’, which claims to welcome all viewpoints and encourage vigorous discussion.

Receiving a ‘Red’ rating in spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings, Oxford has repeatedly been at the centre of controversies over freedom of expression. In February, students wishing to hear Marine Le Pen speak at the Oxford Union were besieged by a violent mob, and formally denounced by the Oxford University Students’ Union (which issued no apology for the protests, despite its extensive involvement). Similar protests also took place when former EDL leader Tommy Robinson and the then Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub each came to address the Oxford Union.

Last November, an abortion debate (featuring spiked editor Brendan O’Neill) was prevented from taking place at Christ Church College after student threats of protest. The college called it off, citing ‘welfare concerns’, and to this day it has been unable to take place. It was this event that precipitated the ‘Stepford Student’ phenomenon, which – despite being widely lambasted in the national press – has only grown in influence over the last year.

It is this climate in which OUSU operates. The intention of No Offence’s founders was to hand out copies of the magazine to freshers from the magazine’s stall at the university fresher’s fair (on which the students’ union has a monopoly). Upon having sent OUSU digital copies of the magazine, however, Williams was informed in an email that, due to a breach of ‘regulation 13 of the Student Stallholders Regulations’, he would not be permitted to hand them out.

Regulation 13 is available to view on the OUSU website, and states that ‘OUSU reserves the right to remove any materials, or to prevent any activity, which in the view of OUSU officers is likely to cause offence’. It goes on to stress the infallibility of its own decisions: ‘[The choice] will be taken at the discretion of OUSU and will be final. This applies for the duration of the fair.’

In practice, this rule means that OUSU is entitled to remove any material at any time from any stall, without giving further explanation or issuing refunds to stallholders. No Offence will still have its stall – the £40 cost of which will not be reimbursed – but will not be able to distribute the magazine, rather undermining the point.

In response to No Offence’s prohibition, Williams replied to OUSU informing it that he was willing to consider alterations to the magazine on the proviso that these did not ‘completely change its character’. OUSU’s response did not even acknowledge this offer. It told Williams (who stated that, were OUSU to decline to work with him, he would contact student press) that it had already contacted the Oxford Student – a publication funded and overseen by OUSU themselves. In fact, OUSU is paying for copies of the Oxford Student to be distributed for free at the freshers’ fair.

‘There is nothing offensive about healthy debate’, Williams told me. ‘To ban us from promoting it on the grounds that people might be offended proves everything the free-speech movement has been saying. No offence, OUSU, but you just shot yourself in the foot.’

Tanett added: ‘We’re not inciting violence – as many people do with impunity. We’re not revealing national security secrets – as many people would applaud. We’re not even campaigning for any particular view to be listened to. All we’re doing is campaigning for events and magazines like ours not to be shut down. For the free exchange of ideas.’

Interestingly, the OUSU-backed Campaign for Racial Awareness and Equality, whose co-chair was at the centre of an anti-Semitism storm and has since refused to resign, will be present and distributing materials at the fair.

When asked about their new plans for distributing No Offence, the pair chose to stay mysterious. I for one will be watching this space.


Wesleyan and the "Black Lives Matter" blasphemer

‘There is more than one way to burn a book’, wrote Ray Bradbury.

Well, Wesleyan University’s ideological enforcers couldn’t possibly burn wrong-thinking publications (one must be an eco-friendly authoritarian, after all), so they found a green alternative: recycle them!

This is the news that students and administrators at the Connecticut university are ‘boycotting’ the Wesleyan Argus student newspaper for publishing an op-ed that was mildly critical of some aspects of the anti-police-brutality group Black Lives Matter (BLM). Their petition reads: ‘This boycott includes recycling the Argus and demanding [its] funds… be revoked.’ According to the op-ed’s author, Bryan Stascavage, hundreds of papers have already been stolen, some possibly burned or shredded.

To paraphrase a favourite movie of mine: You keep using that word, ‘boycott’. I do not think it means what you think it means.

So this looks bad. Really bad. But reason has not completely left college campuses yet. Stascavage has previously praised professors and students at Wesleyan for being open and challenging his conservative views: ‘[R]ather than trying to protect the ideological bubble around their classrooms, the professors are ecstatic when a view is brought up that is diametrically opposed to standard liberal beliefs.’

Most students on college campuses are open to opposing views and welcome ideological battle. And, despite the flurry of campus censorship of late, the forces of sanity have begun to break through. President Obama has spoken out (albeit hypocritically) about campus coddling, and reason prevailed at the University of Warwick this week when the students’ union lifted its ban on anti-Islamist campaigner Maryam Namazie.

Alas, the censorious still seem to drown out the sane. At Wesleyan and elsewhere, students (and sometimes administrators and faculty) cry ‘blasphemy!’ and demand the heads of unbelievers.

Two things stick out here. First, as noted, the methods being used at Wesleyan are downright scary. Protesting views you disagree with is acceptable. But trying to stop yourselves and others from encountering views you disagree with undermines the purpose of a college education, and the battle of ideas that is so crucial to democracy. What’s more, arguing with views you disagree with makes you a sharper thinker; those boycotting the newspaper are mostly hurting themselves.

Demanding the withdrawal of a newspaper’s funding for airing a contrary opinion in an op-ed is despicable. But stealing and confiscating newspapers so others can’t read them is downright authoritarian. If that wasn’t enough, the petition called for ‘social justice/diversity training for all publications’ once a semester. This is mandatory ideological cleansing of the student press. It’s just plain wrong.

Second, going on Stascavage’s statements, he is clearly a moderate, even conciliatory, individual. In his article, he expresses support for BLM generally, asking merely whether different strategies and rhetoric might better advance its goals. He writes of BLM: ‘There is a reason why so many have shown up to protests across the country: there is clearly something wrong, and wrong enough to motivate them to exit their homes and express their frustration publicly. That is no small effort. The system is clearly failing many.’

Stascavage did not call BLM a terrorist group, or racist against whites, or a supporter of cop-killing. So why the venomous reaction?

My take is that this type of uproar is a symptom of cult politics. In a secular age, students channel the religious impulse into political causes. With zeal, students purge heretics, punish blasphemers and demand genuflection to their idols.

The campus left is a mirror image of the censorious religious right, but it derives its intolerance not from gospel, but postmodernism, critical theory, environmentalism and so-called anti-racism. The new orthodoxy is as fanatical as the old.


Benham Brothers: ‘There’s a Direct Assault on Christianity in America’

 Business entrepreneurs, authors and twin brothers David and Jason Benham said on Friday that the real threat to religious liberty is the threat faced by Christians.

When asked what they felt posed the greatest threat to religious liberty, Jason Benham said, “The first thing that we’re saying is we don’t believe there’s a threat to religious liberty. We think there’s a threat to Christian liberty, because all other religions seem to be fine right now in America.”

Benham, who spoke at the Family Research Council Action’s Values Voters Summit in Washington, D.C., referred to news report about Islam being taught in U.S. schools while Christianity is targeted.

“We’ve even got elementary schools now starting to teach Islamic prayers – but Christian prayers – how dare you have a Christian Bible in the schools,” he told “There’s a direct assault on Christianity in America. That’s why we’re encouraging Christians to stand.”

Earlier this month, a parent at a middle school in Tennessee complained after her daughter created a school project featuring the Shahada, or the Five Pillars of Faith in Islam: prayer, almsgiving, fasting, pilgrimage and creed, according to a Sept. 3 report posted on Home Page Media Group’s website.

Brandee Porterfield said that her daughter and other students at Spring Hill Middle School were asked in translating the Shahada to write “Allah is the only God.”

Mark Cook, managing editor of the website, told that in the wake of the controversy that the state has decided to review its standards for middle school social studies over the next two years instead of the original start date for review of 2018.

David Benham told that Christians are partly to blame for the ongoing assault on their religious beliefs.

“The greatest threat to that is the silence of Christians,” he said. “As Edmund Burke once said, the only thing necessary for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”


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