Union given green light for extremist speakers

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The Oxford and Cambridge Union societies have been exempted from government plans to ban extremist speakers from universities after lobbying from senior Tory peers.

Under the plans outlined by Home Secretary Theresa May, universities are required to have clear policies “setting out the activities that are or are not allowed to take place on campus”, in addition to issuing guidance that suggests student union officers should undergo training in counter-terrorism awareness.

The statutory guidance would deny non-violent extremist speakers platforms at UK universities, legislation which goes further than current legal restrictions on incitement to violence.

Pressure to exempt the two debating institutions has come from ex-cabinet ministers, Lord Deben and Lord Lamont, both of whom claimed that under the plans, the famous 1960 Cambridge Union debate with fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley would not have taken place.

Opposition to the plans has also come from former master of Jesus College, Lord Renfrew, who warned Home Office ministers that the Cambridge Union Society’s commitment to ‘free speech’ would be undermined by the proposals.

Addressing the House of Lords, Home Officer minister Lord Bates announced that both institutions would be exempt on the grounds that “they exist separately from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, and as such are not covered by the duty.”

Despite endorsing a ‘no-platform’ policy for speakers with “racist or fascist views”, the National Union of Students has been vocal in its opposition to the government’s plans, telling The Guardian: “We are alarmed about the speed at which the bill is being introduced. Rushed laws are often very ill-thought out, or otherwise poorly scrutinised, and we will continue to strongly oppose the bill while calling for a thorough assessment into the legality of its proposals.”

Commenting on the proposals to The Cambridge Student, one first-year MML student said: “Despite the legal separation between the Oxbridge Union societies and the universities themselves, the impact of the speakers’ views upon students remains essentially the same as at any other university.”

They added: “The distinction between 'violent' and 'non-violent' extremism means very little when so-called 'non-violent' speakers express views which contribute to and perpetuate cultures of violence nevertheless.”

‘No-platforming’ rows have been the subject of much controversy at the Cambridge Union in recent months. A decision to invite the Israeli Ambassador sparked protests last October, while CUSU LGBT+ endorsed a boycott of the Union after feminist academic Germaine Greer was invited to speak last term.

The Cambridge Union Society is yet to comment on the announcement. 

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