A free speech row has broken out at Oxford after the university attacked the decision by a women’s group to cancel a speech by the former home secretary Amber Rudd at the last minute.
The university authorities intervened after the UNWomen Oxford society called Rudd, who resigned from the cabinet over the Windrush scandal, to withdraw an invitation to her half an hour before she was due to speak on Thursday. The former MP was pictured with the organiser, Felicity Graham, in an empty auditorium.
Rudd said on Friday morning that the decision was “badly judged” and “rude” and urged students who opposed her politics to “stop hiding and start engaging”.
The university said it strongly disapproved of the decision to disinvite her, tweeting that it is “committed to freedom of speech and opposes no-platforming”.
The row over the decision – which drew in students, politicians and Rudd’s family on Friday – is the latest incident in the long-running discussion about freedom of speech at universities.
The academic Selina Todd was dropped from a feminist conference over her views on transgender rights issues, a decision that prompted the Office for Students to warn that “there is a legal requirement on universities to take steps that are reasonably practicable to secure freedom of speech within the law and protect academic freedom”.
UNWomen Oxford said the decision on Rudd came after intense pressure from campaigners to scrap her appearance, with Graham claiming she was adamant the event should go ahead but that “it was the Oxford African and Caribbean Society – who hold a lot of power – who really applied the pressure and forced us to cancel”.
But in response, Oxford’s African Caribbean Society (ACS) said it did not call for the cancellation of the event. In a statement published on Twitter it said: “We privately expressed [when approached by Felicity Graham, the UNWomen Oxford president] that although we share the disappointment expressed by some of our members, we did not in any way intend to boycott the event since we, as a cultural society, ultimately have no place to demand the event not go ahead.
“The society did not call for Ms Rudd’s speech to be cancelled, nor did we ‘force’ UNWomen Oxford to cancel their event.
“Individuals who are members of our society expressed public disapproval, but did so as individuals. Oxford ACS never planned or even discussed ‘boycotting’ the event … In no way did Oxford ACS ‘force this to happen.’”
The event, In Conversation: Amber Rudd, had been organised by UNWomen Oxford as part of its UN Women’s 2020 Trailblazer Series ahead of International Women’s Day on Sunday. The former home secretary was to be interviewed about her earlier role as minister for women and equalities and encouraging women to get into politics.
Following the row, the UN’s women group for the UK suspended the society’s permission to use its name. UN Women UK asked for the Oxford group to make no further association with the national body and it has now changed its name to United Women Oxford Student Society.
Rudd resigned as home secretary in 2018 after heavy pressure over her role in the Windrush scandal.
After news of the cancellation broke, she tweeted her frustration at the decision, saying it was “badly judged and rude of some students last night at Oxford to decide to ‘no platform’ me 30 mins before an event … to encourage young women into politics”.
And her daughter, the journalist Flora Gill, tweeted: “Can not believe mum was ‘no-platformed’ at my old Uni yesterday.
“I don’t care if you disagree with her … this is NOT how women should treat each other.”
Her political allies gave their support on Friday, with the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, describing the decision as unacceptable and calling on the university to take “robust action” to defend free speech.
The leader of the Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, replied to Rudd’s tweet: “Free speech is the bedrock of a democracy and Oxford University ought to lead the way rather than being snowflake central.”
But others were sceptical about the significance of the offence to Rudd. The radio presenter James O’Brien tweeted: “I think Amber Rudd was treated pretty shabbily, but I wish I could think of a word to describe people more exercised by her experience than they were by people of colour being wrongly deported from the only home they’d ever known.”
And the political commentator Ash Sarkar said: “I actually don’t think there’s a moral duty to no platform Amber Rudd the same as a fascist. But after presiding over the wrongful deportations of mums, dads, grandparents & loved ones, you don’t get to complain about not being allowed somewhere you feel you have a right to be.”