We will fight them on the benches!

Katie Spenceley 22 November 2007

The Oxford Union has continued to draw criticism for inviting convicted Holocaust denier, David Irving, and leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, to speak at a “Free Speech Forum” next Monday.

Irving was imprisoned after being found guilty of Holocaust denial in Austria, whilst BNP leader Griffin also has a conviction for incitement to racial hatred for material denying the Holocaust. Survivors of the Holocaust are also due to attend the event.

Oxford students joined with the NUS and Trade Union groups at a rally opposing the invitations yesterday.

Representatives of Unite Against Facism also attended, as well as the University of Oxford’s Jewish chaplain.

The NUS Black Students Campaign has repeatedly demanded that the Oxford Union withdraws its invitation to the speakers, whilst students and anti-fascist campaigners have also planned another demonstration on Monday if the event goes ahead.

The protest was aimed at flagging up concerns over student safety, as it is thought that neo-Nazi organisations could turn up in support of Griffin and Irving.

But Oxford Union President, Luke Tryl, has stood by his decision to invite Griffin and Irving. “We felt it was appropriate that if you had a debate about extremism you had to invite extremists along to it.”

“I think that both Nick Griffin and David Irving have awful and abhorrent views, but I do believe that the best way to tackle extremism is to defeat them in debate”, Tryl told The Cambridge Student (TCS).

“I find it worrying that the far right has taken up the banner of free speech and they’ve become free speech martyrs and it’s time to take that banner back from them and crush them in a public forum.”

But the NUS’s Black Students Officer, Ruqayyah Collector, rejected the claim that the debate is necessary. “At a time when elite universities recognise the need to increase applications from black students, this sends out the wrong message.

“Inviting the leader of Britain’s biggest fascist organisation and a convicted Holocaust denier is an insult to the millions of people who have lost their lives in the struggle against fascism and racism.”

She added: “Fascists think some people should be denied the right to live, let alone speak. The idea that these people should address a ‘free speech forum’ is grotesque.”

And officials from the Cambridge Union Society have detailed their reasons for not inviting Griffin to speak at our own Union. “I support the Oxford Union’s commitment to free speech”, current Union President Roland Foxcroft told TCS. “I believe that both Unions have served as proud centres of intellectual freedom and debate, and we work hard to uphold that tradition.

“This term, the Cambridge Union chose not to invite Nick Griffin because I felt he would add little value to our membership”, Foxcroft continued. “In a term packed with high quality events, many of which promise to stimulate and educate our members, I did not feel that Mr Griffin would add to the vigorously intellectual character of the debates we host on a regular basis.”

Foxcroft’s successor, President-Elect Will Wearden, assured TCS that there is no prospect of a visit from Griffin in the near future. “I appreciate that the Oxford Union wishes to continue a proud and important tradition of allowing free speech to all, and in stimulating debate and discussion”, he said.

“As at Cambridge, the Oxford Union’s term is the domain of its President, and Luke Tryl should not be told who he can or cannot invite in. However, I believe that the Cambridge Union has a social responsibility to its members and the residents of the city. I would not invite representatives of extremist political groups with militant associations, such as the BNP, because I would not wish their associated entourages to violently intimidate those in Cambridge.”

Katie Spenceley