Cancelled Rudd event at Oxford not free-speech issue, say feminists

Oxford Feminist Society’s ethnic diversity representative says booking of former home secretary was misjudged

The decision to cancel an event with the former home secretary Amber Rudd at Oxford University has been misunderstood as “no-platforming” and is not a free-speech issue, the ethnic diversity representative at the Oxford Feminist Society has said.

The event, In Conversation: Amber Rudd, was organised by UNWomen Oxford as part of its 2020 Trailblazer Series in the lead-up to International Women’s Day on Sunday, but was cancelled 30 minutes before it was due to start after a majority vote by the group’s committee after criticism from students.

The incident shows no signs of blowing over. Oxford University has stated its opposition to “no-platforming” and declared it would ensure there would be no repeat of this situation. Meanwhile, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said on Friday evening that the government would step in if universities failed to “defend free speech”.

But Safa Sadozai‎, from the Oxford Feminist Society, drew a distinction between the event – advertised as a celebration of Rudd’s achievements for women, without mentioning the Windrush scandal – and a debate where views were challenged robustly.

“All the promotional material spoke about Rudd’s role in encouraging women to get involved in parliament and the UN,” Sadozai‎ said. “Under that context, it didn’t sound like it could ever be an open debate where views are challenged.”

She said it was widely accepted the decision was last-minute, but described the invitation as “misjudged” and criticised the response of the university.

“It’s been misunderstood by the university as a free-speech issue or no-platforming,” Sadozai said. “Many people here were saying she is not entitled to be celebrated or upheld as a feminist.”

According to the official Facebook listing for the event, the conversation was expected to be premised around the former minister for women and equalities’ work in a traditionally male-dominated field.

The listing said that Rudd had championed equality, urged tough legal penalties to eradicate female genital mutilation and called for a higher proportion of women in cabinet. Rudd has also chaired a cross-party inquiry into unplanned pregnancies, which called for statutory sex and relationships education in all secondary schools, the UNWomen Oxford society said.

But Sadozai said: “I personally don’t think she has been very inspiring, but it depends how other women want to perceive her..

“For an event like International Women’s Day, which is about solidarity, it can’t be that difficult to find someone who has had less of a controversial career. It felt like they were disregarding her role in the Windrush scandal.”

Rudd stepped down as home secretary as the Windrush scandal escalated and it emerged she had misled parliament over the existence of targets within the Home Office to deport undocumented migrants.

The former Tory MP, who stood down at the last election, said the decision to “no-platform” her shortly before the event “to encourage young women into politics” was badly judged. “They should stop hiding and start engaging. #FreeSpeech,” she tweeted on Friday.

Lord MacDonald, the warden of Oxford’s Wadham College, said attendees would have had the opportunity to challenge Rudd on her record and that a free exchange of ideas was fundamental to university life.

“It was made clear by this society in advance that people would be free to question her about her policies in government and the impact they had on women of all races,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“The University of Oxford has a very robust free-speech policy, which acknowledges that a part of free expression is a willingness to be confronted with views that you might find unsettling, extreme or even offensive.”

Last month, historian Prof Selina Todd was forced to pull out of an event after a boycott threat from other speakers. Williamson said it was “unacceptable” for two speakers to have been “no-platformed at Oxford within a week”.

“It is not enough to adopt free-speech codes if they are not enforced,” he told the Telegraph. “I expect the University of Oxford to take robust action over these incidents – and, if universities are not prepared to defend free speech, the government will.”


Mattha Busby

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Free speech row at Oxford University after Rudd talk cancelled
University said it opposed ‘non-platforming’ after former minister’s speech was cancelled last minute

Lucy Campbell

06, Mar, 2020 @6:04 PM

Article image
Amber Rudd hits out at 'rude' Oxford students after talk cancelled
Former minister’s appearance at International Women’s Day event called off at last minute

Jamie Grierson Home affairs correspondent

06, Mar, 2020 @10:15 AM

Article image
Amber Rudd protest isn’t a threat to free speech | Letter
Letter: The disinvitation of the former home secretary by an Oxford University student society was not a matter of no-platforming, says Anshuman Mondal


08, Mar, 2020 @6:40 PM

Article image
We're making a right mess of our right to free expression
The row between Oxford University and the students who ‘disinvited’ Amber Rudd highlights the illiberalism on both sides of the argument

Kenan Malik

29, Mar, 2020 @5:30 AM

Article image
Oxbridge student groups to be exempt from free speech law
Labour MPs accuse government of ‘ridiculous’ double standards and warn of two-tier university system

Richard Adams Education editor

19, Sep, 2021 @1:48 PM

Article image
Oxford University says sorry for International Women’s Day gaffe
Outcry after photo shows female cleaner scrubbing out graffiti celebrating rights movement

Alexandra Topping

09, Mar, 2018 @2:48 PM

Article image
Safe space or free speech? The crisis around debate at UK universities
The cancellation of comedian Kate Smurthwaite’s Goldsmiths show after protests against her politics is indicative of a wider battle for the nature of student life – should university be a ‘safe space’ for all, or a place where anything can be debated?

Ian Dunt

06, Feb, 2015 @4:49 PM

Article image
Anti-terror laws risk 'chilling effect' on academic debate – Oxford college head
Ken Macdonald, a former director of public prosecutions, warns government Prevent strategy may stifle free speech and university research

Richard Adams Education editor

07, Feb, 2016 @3:48 PM

Article image
How the Windrush scandal led to fall of Amber Rudd – timeline
All the key events, from the Guardian breaking the story to the home secretary’s resignation

Nadia Khomami and Goda Naujokaityte

30, Apr, 2018 @3:44 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Chinese women’s rights: free the feminists | Editorial
Editorial: Later this year, China is co-hosting a UN summit on women, but back home it is detaining feminists who protest against sexual harrassment


05, Apr, 2015 @6:34 PM