Oxford Union is no place for Irving

I spoke out against the invitation at the Union’s Middle East debate on 23 October and soon after I placed a petition on the Prime Minister’s website. The strength of opposition to the invitation can be seen from the popularity of the petition: In less than three weeks nearly 1400 signed, making it one of the fastest growing petitions ever. We now await Gordon Brown’s response.

We have been accused of opposing free speech, but that is a gross misrepresentation. David Irving is a Holocaust Denier and Nick Griffin is the Chairman of the BNP which incites race hatred. Let’s take each in turn. In German and Austria, Holocaust denial is a crime. Because the UK’s history is very different, it would be a mistake to make denial illegal. But that does not mean that Irving should have a platform at the Union – which remains one of the most sought after debating societies in the world. Since his release from an Austrian prison nearly a year ago, Irving’s public appearances have been rare and confined to fringe events – a bizarre World War Two re-enactment in a field in Kent, for example. That is where a deliberately fraudulent academic – whose purpose was to rehabilitate the Nazis – belongs – not at Oxford, a place of careful scholarship. For Irving to speak at the Union is insulting to the ethos of the University and to those who strive to uphold it. It also sets a dreadful precedent. There is no doubt that Irving would try to use his appearance to give respectability to his obscene cause and to gain other platforms. Similarly for the BNP, for which Griffin has strived to gain respectability, particularly in the fertile climate of growing opposition to Islamism. Racists have no place in an institution which prizes scholarship, regardless of the race of the scholar.

Furthermore, the pair are entirely the wrong speakers at a forum on ‘Free Speech’. What the ‘free speech’ advocates at the Union miss is that the right cannot exist without legal and other constraints. Presumably one purpose of such a forum is to explore how those constraints might change over time and space. But using the analogy of a football game, the appropriate people to do this are the referees, not the players. That points to speakers such as Trevor Phillips or Chris Smith (the Chairman of the Advertising Standards Authority) – not Irving or Griffin.

Indeed the law surrounds the right of free speech with constraints. The Human Rights Act (1988) says that it is conditional on security and public safety and the rights of others. Wherever racist speakers have a platform, the incidence of racist attacks tends to rise. The trophy of the invitation to these two has been held aloft on Far Right websites which have also published the names of the Presidents of the JSoc. How can it now be responsible – or indeed legal – for the University Proctors not to step in?

Finally if these invitations stand, the Union would be wide open to the charge of inconsistency. Just a month ago, Norman Finkelstein – who has tried to devalue the Holocaust – was disinvited from the Middle East debate. So much for ‘free speech’ at the Oxford Union.

Jonathan Hoffman is the founder of Dayenu

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