Oxford college’s attempt to “protect” students violates freedom of expression

The University of Oxford’s Balliol College has banned representatives of the Christian Union (CU) from attending its freshers’ fair because of concerns for its “potential harm to freshers.”

The decision was not because of any condemnable behaviour by the Christian Union, but was merely an attempt at making sure the freshers’ fair was a “secular space.” However, rather than protecting their students, this decision sends out a worrying message about the values of Balliol College: the act of banning representatives from attending the fair suggests a violation of free speech and religious expression.

As an alternative, the college’s JCR (Junior Common Room) pledged to have a multi-faith stand where leaflets would be presented. Perhaps this was done with the good intention of making sure all religious groups were equally represented, but this decision was far too drastic, and it gives the impression that the university wants to minimise religious involvement and prohibit the activities of the CU.

The JCR committee reportedly told the Christian Union that they are “concerned that there is potential for harm to freshers who are already struggling to feel welcome in Oxford.” But surely, as a Christian, joining the CU would make you feel welcomed and more comfortable in starting university life, allowing you to meet likeminded people and become part of a community.

Rather than making such a rash decision, which naturally caused uproar amongst not only students but also staff and members of the community, the organisers should have ensured wider representation at the freshers’ fair for all religious groups. A freshers’ fair in which many groups are represented would promote diversity, instead of sending the message that the university is opposed to one particular religion.

According to Oxford’s student newspaper, Cherwell, the JCR vice-president Freddy Potts justified the decision because of the fact that “Christianity’s influence on many marginalised communities has been damaging in its methods of conversion and rules of practice, and is still used in many places as an excuse for homophobia and certain forms of neo-colonialism.” It seems that the decision to ban the CU was made based because of personal views about Christianity in general, rather than valid concerns relating to the actions of the college CU.

It would be a different story if there was evidence that the CU were preaching an intolerance or using their religion to marginalise other groups across the university. However, without this kind of evidence, it is narrow-minded to ban the group based on broad assumptions about Christianity in general.

Universities should be focusing on ensuring all religious groups are fairly represented, so that all students are fully-aware of the existence of societies and communities they may want to be part of. If these groups began to pose problems to the safety or happiness of others on campus, then it would be necessary to control this, but this is a far cry from banning a group based on unsupported generalisations about their beliefs.

The controversial decision to ban the CU from attending the fair does the opposite of promoting a diverse society in which students feel welcome.  As well as denying students their right to freedom of religious speech, this act does not adhere to the society of equal rights and opportunities which we should be trying to promote.

Image: Tony Hisgett via Flikr

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