Written by Student Rights on 11 July 2013 at 11am

Tommy Robinson and the Oxford Union

A tweet last week from a committee member of the Oxford Union Debating Society inviting English Defence League (EDL) leader Tommy Robinson to speak on the motion “This house is proud to be patriotic” has been downplayed by students this week amid controversy.

Security concerns over Robinson’s attendance have been highlighted by Debating Society Members Secretary Susan Beveridge, who suggested that it was “highly possible that he won't be featuring”.

Robinson, who has several convictions for violent conduct including assault and using threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour, appeared with masked supporters following the Woolwich Barracks attack and shouted:

Islam is not a religion of peace, Islam is fascist and violent and we’ve had enough...this is the end, it’s the end, enough is enough”.

In September 2011 he gave a speech in which he threatened the UK’s Muslim community, stating:

Every single Muslim watching this video on YouTube; on 7/7 you got away with killing and maiming British citizens...Next time you think about it you had better understand that we have built a network from one end of the country to the other end.

We will not tolerate it and the Islamic community will feel the full force of the English Defence League if we see any of our citizens killed, maimed or hurt on British soil ever again”.

The EDL were listed on the National Union of Students (NUS) ‘No Platform’ policy following the 2012 National Conference, and Robinson is also a former member of the British National Party (BNP), another organisation ‘No Platformed’ by the NUS.

Tom Rutland, the president of Oxford’s Student Union released a statement addressing the invitation, which read:

"The welfare of students is our utmost priority. Fascist speakers who spread hate and threats that extend to members of our student body, and often bring with them a rally of violent and dangerous thugs, are clearly a threat to student safety.

There is no value in inviting or hosting hate speakers in the name of ‘free speech’ when they themselves do not believe in free speech nor a free society, and stand on a platform of oppressing people because of their race, religion, gender or sexuality”.

The informal invitation made to Robinson is reminiscent of that offered to BNP leader Nick Griffin in January 2013, which was retracted after attracting controversy.

In addition to this, in February 2013 Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National was invited to speak at the University of Cambridge, leading to extensive protest on campus.

Hate crimes are already a serious issue on UK campuses, with statistics compiled by the NUS between 2010 and 2011 finding that 31% of Jewish respondents and 17% of Muslim respondents had been victims of religiously motivated hate incidents.

At the time we wrote that students have a right to study in an environment which does not put them at risk of attacks such as these, and inviting speakers like Robinson legitimises the prejudices of those who might target minority groups.

Robinson's threatening anti-Muslim rhetoric is more toxic than Le Pen’s prejudices, and members of his organisation have been jailed for targeting Muslims, notably following an arson attack on a mosque in 2011.

Whilst universities do have a legal duty to protect freedom of expression, they must also take into account the potential risks of both breaches of the law and violence on campus when speakers espousing any political extremes are invited.

Given Robinson’s rhetoric, as well as his violent past, this risk is likely to be high and we hope that the Debating Society will take this into account in this case, and when inviting speakers in the future.