Oxford SU criticised for attempting to censor free speech

Oxford University’s Students’ Union is under fire for saying students should not be made to engage with classes or reading lists which include so-called “hateful material”.

The policy, titled ‘Protection of Transgender, Non-binary, Disabled, Working-class, and Women Students from Hatred in University Contexts’, calls for exams and lectures to be made non-compulsory for students if they include ‘hate speech’ against a particular group.

Oxford University academics criticised the motion as an attempt to censor free speech.

‘Grave mistake’

The Student Union motion was proposed by Alex Illsley, Co-Chair of the university’s LGBTQ+ campaign. He claimed that there are multiple examples of “ableist, transphobic, classist, and misogynistic content” on reading lists.

His policy advises university faculties to consider whether reading material could “amount to hate speech” and recommends “trigger warnings” be included with content deemed to be ‘distressing’.

But Jeff McMahan, a professor of moral philosophy at Oxford, said it is a “grave mistake” to “suppose that one can dismiss arguments for a view that one finds distressing or offensive by branding them as instances of some ‘ism’ and insisting that people be ‘protected’ from such arguments because they are motivated by hatred”.

He added: “The only way to deal with arguments with which one disagrees is to determine why they are wrong and to explain it to others – that is, to refute them by counterargument.”


An Oxford University spokesman reported that there are no plans to introduce the policy, saying: “Recognising the vital importance of free expression for the life of the mind, a university may make rules concerning the conduct of debate but should never prevent speech that is lawful”.

He continued: “Inevitably, this will mean that members of the University are confronted with views that some find unsettling, extreme or offensive. But, within the bounds set by law, all voices or views which any member of our community considers relevant should be given the chance of a hearing.”

Last month, an Oxford University college was told to protect freedom of speech properly after a history professor was ‘no-platformed’ following pressure from pro-trans activists.

Selina Todd had been due to speak at the Exeter College event marking the 50th anniversary of the Women’s Liberation Conference, but her invitation was rescinded after she was accused of ‘transphobia’.


A complaints panel told the college that it must take action to ensure that no one’s right to freedom of speech is infringed again.

Professor Sir Rick Trainor, Rector of Exeter College, called the incident “deeply regrettable” and accepted the need to take action. He said the college would revise its policies “as a matter of urgency, in consultation with the university”.


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