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New College narrowly rejected a motion on Sunday night to send a statement of “strong disapproval of Exeter College’s decision to host Christian Concern’s conference” to Exeter’s Rector and JCR President.
The motion was put forward following anger after The Oxford Student revealed that the college is to host the Wilberforce Academy over the Easter Vacation. The Academy is organised by Christian Concern, an organisation widely accused of holding homophobic views.
The proposal was discussed in heated debate for 45 minutes on Sunday night. The main point of contention regarded the Wilberforce Academy’s right to free speech.
Students disagreed on whether Christian Concern is in fact homophobic, as well as issues of free speech surrounding the subject. It was also noted that Exeter would face up to £150,000 in legal costs for breach of contract, and doubts were raised about the validity of the JCR vote as a sufficiently representative mechanism for expressing the opinions of the student body. Some students also feared that New College would potentially be portrayed negatively in the media as a result.
After an initial move to vote was rejected to continue debate, the decision was taken that as the motion involved an “ethical issue”, a “supermajority” of two thirds would be necessary to pass it. The second move to vote led to a 33-32 majority, which meant the motion was rejected.
Timothy Anderson, who seconded the motion, said he was “disappointed” by the decision, adding: “Ironically, in the very same meeting, a motion was passed without opposition to mandate our LGBTQ officer to request permission to raise the rainbow flag above college on the last day of LGBTQ History Month. From this, it’s clear that there was more at play than a gay rights debate.”
He added that had “never felt discriminated against” as a gay person in college. “What was clear from the meeting to me personally was that even some of those who are tolerant and accepting fail to understand quite how important an issue this is for certain members of our community.”
He continued: “Some of the things said were plainly insulting but very few people seemed to realise this when the debate veered off into a discussion of homosexuality itself. I hoped that the JCR of New College would take it upon themselves to express that this sits outside of the values and beliefs of our community and it’s disappointing to see that we, as a JCR, don’t have enough confidence in values which are so evident in our other activities.”
Many Exeter students felt their college had been unfairly characterised. Edward Allnutt and Ella Mae Lewis said, “on behalf of the Exeter LGBTQ community”: “We would like to highlight to readers that from the perspective of our (very well-established) LGBTQ society, Exeter College is extremely welcoming towards its LGBTQ staff and students.
“We continue to maintain our strong disagreement with the views held by Christian Concern.”
The response from some students at Exeter, however, was nonchalant. Low Xi De, a third year at Exeter, commented, “They’re entitled to their opinion. Free speech goes both ways obviously.”