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UK News

'It will take an effort of a generation to restore free speech': Campaigner reacts to Christian Concern and Worcester College, Oxford resolution

by Tola Mbakwe

Christian Concern and Worcester College, Oxford have resolved their dispute over last year's Wilberforce Academy.  

For over a decade, the Wilberforce Academy has run a one-week conference for university students and young professionals who want to work out how to apply their Christian faith in the current culture and more specifically within their chosen vocations including law, politics, education, media, arts and business.

Last year, after student activists complained about the Christian youth conference being hosted at Worcester College, it's provost apologised for causing them "significant distress" and vowed never to host such a conference again.

David Isaac accused conference delegates of 'unduly demanding', and 'difficult to deal with'. He also said they were breaking protocols and leaflets had been 'aggressively distributed' and 'without consent'.

The college added that there had been "unsolicited approaches by your conference delegates to staff and students within the confines of the College in respect of various issues, especially LGBT conversion therapy, which they found upsetting.  This was especially the case for new students attending a parallel event, Opportunity Oxford, which prepares young people for their impending admission to Oxford University."

The college also said: "As you will be aware, Oxford University and Worcester College seek to establish an inclusive culture which promotes equality, values diversity and maintains a working, learning and social environment in which the rights and dignity of all members of the College and University community (including people of faith) are respected."

In March, an independent inquiry launched by Christian Concern found the claims made by the college to be false. 

Toby Young, founder and director of Free Speech Union, which backed Christian Concern throughout the whole ordeal, told Premier: "On the face of it, it looks very much as though a group of hard left activists at Worcester College objected to the presence of a Christian group on college premises over the summer, and just invented these allegations about the group in order to strong arm the college into banning the group from ever reappearing at the college. 

"It's only because in this case, Christian Concern and the Free Speech Union have robustly fought back and Christian Concern commissioned this independent inquiry by a solicitor to look into exactly what happened to confirm that none of the allegations are true... we've managed to right this injustice. But, you know, nine times out of ten, these injustices go unchallenged."

Christian Concern and Worcester College released a joint statement on Tuesday in efforts to uphold free speech and announced it had resolved the dispute about the behaviour of staff and delegates at the Wilberforce Academy 2021.

The statement reads: "Worcester College and Christian Concern have met to reaffirm their mutual commitment to the right to freedom of speech and religious belief and the dignity of all people. After detailed examination of the circumstances of Christian Concern's conference in September 2021, Worcester College acknowledges that notwithstanding various accounts of events it was misleading to suggest that Conference delegates or representatives of Christian Concern acted improperly in an email to students in September 2021 which was subsequently leaked to the Cherwell Student newspaper.  

"Worcester College did not act with the intention of impugning Christian Concern or its reputation.  In a world where differing views are strongly and sincerely held it is important to come together and listen to each other. To that end, Worcester has invited Christian Concern to speak at a debate which will take place as soon as can be arranged. Worcester looks forward to welcoming Christian Concern back to College."

Young told Premier he's glad Worcester College had admitted it was wrong and said it's vital Christians don't let free speech violations slide. 

"I think it'll make Worcester College a little bit more cautious in future about taking allegations against politically unfashionable groups at face value, and just banning them from the premises. And hopefully, other Oxford and Cambridge colleges, other higher education institutions that typically behave like this... capitulating to the demands of cancellation mobs without ever investigating the allegations they're making...hopefully, it will give them pause and make them a little more conscientious and a little bit more respectful of due process in future.

"I know from experience that you think you've won a great victory when something like this happens, and this is a victory. But you know, we've won a battle. We haven't won the war. And it's going to take the effort of a generation to restore free speech to its right fourth place at British universities it isn't going to happen overnight."

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