'Stand up for free speech' - Rammell

November 30, 2007

In a robust defence of academic freedom, Higher Education Minister Bill Rammell has spoken out against "no platform" policies, while calling on universities to clamp down on violent extremism, writes Melanie Newman.

Defending the Oxford Union's decision to invite British National Party leader Nick Griffin and controversial historian David Irving to a debate this week, Mr Rammell said students should be allowed to challenge the pair's views - which he called "utterly nauseating".

"Unless everyone involved in HE is prepared to stand up for free speech, even when we disagree profoundly with what is being said, then we risk losing the right to speak freely," he said.

Scuffles broke out as protesters and BNP supporters converged on the Oxford Union on Monday.

Speaking at a Fabian Society debate on Tuesday, Mr Rammell said that as long as their words were within the law, extremists should be allowed to speak and be challenged on grounds of bad reasoning, misinterpretation of data and denial of contrary evidence.

Academic study of the forces driving extremists "must be to the furthest limit of inquiry before reaching the point of actively encouraging criminality," Mr Rammell added.

Where there is incitement to violence or criminality, however, universities must act, he warned.

"Over and above their probable illegality, the problem with these activities is that they run against a fundamental value of higher education," he said. Those institutions that failed to confront these issues were undermining academic freedom, he suggested.

The University and College Union has condemned the Oxford Union, saying: "Nobody is questioning the Oxford Union's right to put this debate on, but there is a huge difference between having the right to do something and using that right responsibly."

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