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Vice-Chancellor’s safe space stance under spotlight

Photos of VC elect, Prof Louise Richardson by John Cairns 4.9.15
OUImages/John Cairns

In recent days, comments by the University’s Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson on the topic of safe spaces – ranging from eleven days to months in origin – have come under the spotlight.

Earlier this week, a Tab article reporting Richardson’s comments on the topic while taking part in a Radio 4 interview from 8 months ago was shared widely on Facebook. On Monday, an article entitled “Vice-Chancellor slams safe-space culture” was subsequently uploaded to Cherwell’s website.

The coverage follows a week where the Oxford Union overwhelmingly rejected the motion ‘This House Believes A University Must Be A Safe Space’ by a clear majority of 234 votes. Convinced by the arguments of opposition speakers Molly Greenwood, human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, and Daily Mail columnist Peter Hitchens, participants reported the emergence of an enormous queue for the chamber’s ‘Noes’ door due to the large numbers voting against the motion.

Free speech is the lifeblood of a university

In the Union’s termcard, it had been announced that Katie Hopkins would be an opposition speaker. However, a statement from the Union before the debate explained she would no longer be present due to her being “sent to cover the French election and subsequent reaction” – with Tatchell being her replacement.

The Vice-Chancellor’s most recent comments themselves originate in an Irish Times article from last week, in which she criticised “cosseted” middle class students whose notions of safe spaces and ‘no platforming’ prevent them from engaging with those who hold different views. She also argued that social media played a role in this mentality, as most people “operate within an echo chamber of like-minded people” when online.

Responding to a request for comment, the University defended the Vice-Chancellor’s position on the grounds of free speech. In their statement to the Oxford Student, it maintained that “free speech is the lifeblood of a university” and that “inevitably, this will mean that members of the University are confronted with views that some find unsettling, extreme or offensive”.

It did qualify the statement, however, saying that freedom of expression must be fostered “within a framework of robust civility” and that “not all theories deserve equal respect”.  It argued that the University’s role was “within the bounds set by law” to allow opinions to be heard and face scrutiny, and that it “will take steps to ensure that all such exchanges happen peacefully” – albeit with “appropriate regulation of the time, place and manner of events”.

Richardson’s comments on the topic are not new; on Radio 4 last year, the Vice-Chancellor argued that “universities are the place where we should hear any legal speech and should demonstrate to our students how to confront speech they find objectionable and safe spaces are stopping that from happening”.

Universities are precisely the places where we should hear views that are objectionable

“Those who want safe spaces are trying to restrict the expression of views they find reprehensible and universities are precisely the places where we should hear views that are objectionable, whether they’re from extremists or on the other hand from the students that find them objectionable,” she said.

The comments echoed ones she made in an interview with the Telegraph in January last year, in which she opposed the removal of the infamous Cecil Rhodes statue at Oriel and criticised no-platforming culture, saying that “we need to expose our students to ideas that make them uncomfortable so that they can think about why it is that they feel uncomfortable and what it is about those ideas that they object to”.

“That’s quite the opposite of the tendency towards safe spaces and I hope that universities will continue to defend the imperative of allowing even objectionable ideas to be spoken,” she added.

Richardson’s comments also reflect those of the University’s Chancellor, Chris Patten, who told students to “embrace freedom of thought, or think about being educated elsewhere” in the midst of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign last year.

Despite this free speech rhetoric, the online politics magazine Spiked has given Oxford a ‘red card’ on free speech, arguing that “The University of Oxford, the Oxford University Students’ Union and its constituent colleges and JCRs collectively create a hostile environment for free speech” in its 2016 report.

It also referenced Christ Church’s banning of an abortion debate, OUSU’s no-platforming of pro-life groups, restrictions on bop themes, and the restriction of the controversial magazine No Offence.

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