Oxford college accused of stifling free speech

A University of Oxford college has been accused of stifling free speech after it cancelled a lecture by a controversial anti-Zionist rabbi.

May 5, 2009

Rabbi Ahron Cohen was to present a paper entitled “Zionism is not Judaism, Anti-Israelism is not Anti-Semitism” at Wolfson College, a postgraduate college, on 30 April.

The lecture was part of a monthly forum organised by the Muslim Education Centre of Oxford (MECO), which booked the venue.

Taj Hargey, chairman of MECO, said the college cancelled the event on 29 April and that Wolfson’s president, Hermione Lee, told him that she had been inundated with complaints from students about the speaker.

He told Times Higher Education: “They are saying there is a booking anomaly, but that is not the real reason for the cancellation. The real reason was student pressure. We have offered to pit a Zionist in a debate against Rabbi Cohen, but that has not been accepted. Free speech has lost, and censorship has won.”

He added that MECO had been holding events at Wolfson College for five years and had never previously had a problem with a speaker. “If we were inviting an Israeli embassy official to speak, we wouldn’t be expected to give notice,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Wolfson College said the lecture booking was cancelled because it was not “made transparently”.

“Wolfson supports free speech and is happy to host speakers of all opinions,” she said. “However, where a speaker is likely to be controversial or provocative, or has the potential to cause offence to college members, it is the college’s policy to discuss among the governing body whether and how to hold the event, including whether opposing voices should be included in the event.

“As this speaker was booked under the identity of a college member who knew nothing about the booking and the real identity of the speaker became apparent only yesterday, there was no opportunity to hold these discussions. This left Wolfson with no option but to tell the organisers that the venue was no longer available.”

On 8 April, City University London forbade the student Islamic Society from broadcasting a speech by a controversial US preacher, Anwar al-Awlaki, at its annual dinner. University managers told the society that it would breach the university’s rules if it broadcast the speech. Times Higher Education asked the university to confirm which rules would have been broken had the speech been broadcast, but did not receive a response.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com

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