Free Speech In Oxford: An open letter to my parliamentary representative

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What follows is an open letter to my parliamentary representative, Anneliese Dodds MP. It follows the recent invitation of Marion Maréchal-Le Pen to speak in Oxford, and her advocacy for this invitation being revoked. You can find the story, and her comments, here.


Dear Anneliese Dodds MP,

It has been a year and a half since I last wrote you; you may remember an open letter I composed on the issue of state faith schools suggesting that the government retract its plan to abolish the cap on the proportion of students that can be admitted as pupils on the basis of their faith alone. You were swiftly cooperative in forwarding my message to the relevant parliamentary under secretary, and I was glad to see the plan was eventually abandoned. I was impressed by your willingness to help me as a constituent of Oxford East, and reassured to think I had a representative in the Commons whom I could rely on.

It is in part for this reason that I was so disappointed by your comments (reported by the BBC, 17th January, 2019) regarding the Oxford Union’s invitation of Marion Maréchal-Le Pen to speak to its members on Tuesday. By the time you read this letter, the event may well have already taken place (though perhaps, if the Steve Bannon episode is anything to go by, only with a minority of would-be attendees actually able to get inside the chamber), and yet I hope you do not therefore disregard the graveness of my concerns which are not limited to the specificities of this event.

In order to continue my support for you as an MP, I would need a response to some salient questions and requests. First, since you referred to Ms Maréchal-Le Pen part of a ‘new generation of fascists’ and as a ‘racist’, I must ask you to substantiate these claims with more than a passing reference to how she is ‘known to be’. I do not necessarily dispute your allegations (and they are in fact irrelevant to the most important of my concerns), but I’m beginning to tire of the annexation of indispensable terms like ‘racist’ and ‘fascist’ into the lexicon of those speakers and writers with mere concerns about right-wing views (views which I do not share, but would never be so myopic as to call racist or fascistic without unequivocal proof). I’m confident that you would not make such a dangerous mistake, and thus hope to hear from you with the references that corroborate your claims.

Second, you assert, ‘Our city is proud of its diversity and yet the Oxford Union seems determined to threaten this.’ Though you do not specify which type of diversity you are talking about, I am sure that you cannot be referring to the most important of these—diversity of thought and opinion—since you feel that a private institution hosting a talk somehow poses a threat to it. My request here is twofold: I’d like to know how precisely you think this talk threatens the diversity of Oxford City (which you rightfully report that I, as both a local and student, am proud of), and if it does, could you please tell me, which do you feel is more dangerous, allowing controversial speakers to talk to an educated audience, or allowing the general public to be the arbiter of permissible speech? To me, the latter resembles mob rule and assumes the arrogance of infallibility. The former option is not a perfect solution, but nor does one exist. Could you please inform me of the level of your commitment to freedom of thought and expression, and how any amount of such a dedication can square with the views you have expressed?

Finally, and my principal reason for writing to you, I was absolutely dismayed by your reference to ‘the utter waste of police resources that will be required by her visit’. Can you think of a better use of public resources than the protection of free expression? Perhaps there may be a few, but to call the defence of the very principle that makes our country a free one an ‘utter waste of police resources’ I think is a mistake that verges on the severity of requiring a retraction. You ‘hope that those running the Oxford Union will grow up,’ yet I can assure you that those who organise these events do not treat their responsibilities lightly, and in fact it seems to me that if anything is indicative of the abdication of the duty to defend diversity, it is not the Union’s invitation of Ms Marechal-Le Pen, but the idea that to deploy police officers to protect this very principle is an ‘utter waste’ of their time and money.

I hope this letter finds you well and that you can elucidate your position on this crucial matter for those of your constituents who, like me, vote according to their principles.

Sincerely yours,

Alex J. O’Connor
St. John’s College
Oxford University

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