Row over freedom of speech at Oxford

November 7, 2003

Oxford University's 120-year-old "forum of free expression", the Oxford Magazine , has been accused of suppressing controversial debate after it refused to publish an open letter from 30 Oxford alumni.

The magazine's editor, Jim Reed, has confirmed to The THES that he decided against publishing the letter, which demands an investigation into the financial health and governance of Harris Manchester College (HMC), after receiving an email from an unnamed "HMC official" casting doubt on the status and veracity of the signatories.

Professor Reed told one of the alumni behind the letter: "I have decided not to publish your letter, largely because of uncertainties over the status and content of the signatures and signatories."

He told The THES that verifying each signature would have required "lengthy inquiries" that he was not prepared to make.

But Hilary Hicklin, the HMC alumna who organised the letter, was able to provide, within a matter of minutes, evidence that each signatory had clearly approved the text of the letter and had volunteered to put their name to it.

Ms Hicklin said: " Oxford Magazine claims to be an open forum for discussion of issues affecting the university, so I am surprised that the editor would allow a single [approach from Harris Manchester] to close the matter down.

I was very careful to obtain written consent to the wording of the letter from every one of the signatories."

It is understood that HMC principal Ralph Waller was passed a list of signatories to the letter, which was sent to the college's visitor, Eton college provost Sir Eric Anderson, who is its quasi-judicial arbiter of complaints.

The letter was also copied to Oxford vice-chancellor Sir Colin Lucas and chancellor Chris Patten.

The THES has learnt that within hours of receiving the list of names, Dr Waller had contacted at least one signatory, urging them to withdraw their name.

The signatory, who does not want to be named, had seen the final text of the letter and had approved the inclusion of her name in writing but was concerned by Dr Waller's approach. Her hesitation during the exchange led HMC to doubt the status and content of the list.

Julie Godson, another signatory to the open letter, said: "Obviously it would be highly irregular if one of the signatories felt the college was putting her under pressure to withdraw her signature, and also for the Oxford Magazine to be gagged as well."

Professor Reed, a fellow of Queen's College, Oxford, insisted that The THES publish his written response in full: "I need no tutorials from you about issues of openness, thank you very much.

"So, far from being put under 'considerable pressure' by Dr Waller (Who dreams these things up? Do you?), I have had no communication from him.

Pressure from any side would in any case be counterproductive.

"I had one email from an HMC official suggesting that the status and intentions of the signatories varied.

"Lengthy inquiries would have been involved - as witness your own tangled account - in ascertaining the exact position of 30 signatories and in adjudicating a to-and-fro between the two sides. (Meanwhile, I also have a full-time job to do.)

"With [a story about the] open letter already in full public view in the much larger forum of your journal ( THES , October 31), there was no pressing public-interest reason to print the letter in the Oxford Magazine as well. To call that 'suppression' is daft."

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