Free-speech defender apologises for hosting our Wilberforce Academy

22 September 2021

An Oxford college led by the former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has reportedly capitulated to student activism by ‘apologising’ for hosting a Christian conference.

Worcester College, Oxford, where David Isaac has been Provost since July 2021, is said to have apologised unreservedly to students for allowing the Wilberforce Academy, an initiative of Christian Concern, to take place at the college between 6-10 September.

The college is reported to have told a student newspaper:

‘The Wilberforce Academy’s views on “reproductive rights” and “conversion therapy” “do not align with our values, and we are aware that the conference’s presence and promotional materials have caused distress to many members of the College.’

It added that the college would use its profits from the conference for “dedicated equality, diversity, and inclusivity initiatives.”

The decision to ‘apologise’ for hosting the conference, seems starkly at odds with Mr Isaac’s stand whilst chair of the EHRC.

During his tenure, the EHRC published guidance to “protect lawful free speech”. At the time of publication, Mr Isaac said:

“The free expression and exchange of different views without persecution or interference goes straight to the heart of our democracy and is a vital part of higher education. Holding open, challenging debates rather than silencing the views of those we don’t agree with helps to build tolerance and address prejudice and discrimination. Our guidance makes clear that freedom of speech in higher education should be upheld at every opportunity and should only be limited where there are genuine safety concerns or it constitutes unlawful behaviour.”

The five ‘core ideas’ that shape the guidance include: “higher education providers should always work to widen debate and challenge, never to narrow it,” and “any decision about speakers and events should seek to promote and protect the right to freedom of expression”.

In a speech a few weeks after publication, Mr Isaac spoke warmly of the role of faith groups in a university setting:

“Faith and belief groups are, in my view, an asset to universities and must be properly supported. They provide a haven where students can engage with people who hold similar beliefs and are a platform for students to go out and engage with others – even those who hold differing views.”

He went on to say: “that is why I believe higher education institutions have a responsibility to be bastions of debate and defenders of free expression,” before quoting George Orwell: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

In future, the government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill could prove relevant to decisions about hosting similar events. The bill includes measures to ensure  that ‘the use of any premises of the provider is not denied to any individual or body’ , based on the ‘policy or objectives or the ideas, beliefs or views of any of its members.’

For over a decade, the Wilberforce Academy has run a one-week conference for young professional Christians who have a passion to serve Jesus Christ in a variety of vocations including law, politics, education, media, arts and business.

Topics covered by expert international speakers include: abortion, Islam, support for those experiencing unwanted same-sex attraction, transgenderism and Christian cultural history.

The conference includes teaching and biblical beliefs that have been recognised by the Christian church globally for the past 2,000 years.

The event in September passed without incident, senior staff at the college were welcoming and some staff members described us as the friendliest group they had ever had.

Andrea Minichiello Williams, chief executive of Christian Concern said: “Sadly, we have had no communication from Worcester college about these reports of an ‘apology’ for hosting us, despite our attempts to contact staff and discuss what has been alleged.

“But if the college has turned its back on us, it seems that cancel culture has once again demonstrated the power of its grip in one of our top universities, fuelled by a small group of activists who won’t tolerate any view that departs from their own narrow ideology and who will resort to tactics of misrepresentation and sweeping allegations to get their way, seemingly frightening nearly everyone into submission.

“That a college now led by someone who has so often claimed to be a defender of freedom of expression in higher education is rumoured to have capitulated to this aggressive movement is even more concerning. We very much enjoyed our week at the college, were very warmly welcomed, including by the Provost, received many compliments from the staff and were not aware of any complaints or concerns being raised with us at the time. Yet now we hear it alleged that the college has ‘apologised’ for hosting us!

“We will be seeking urgent clarification. Whatever happens, we will continue to speak of Jesus Christ who was himself an ‘outsider’ and by his words and actions demonstrated his commitment to reaching the marginalised, excluded and vulnerable so that they could discover true hope and everlasting love through him, even sacrificing his own life to do so.

“Oxford University should continue to stand for free speech and free expression and allow its students to have the intellectual ability to decide whether they wish to attend external events, and to make up their own minds on what they hear.”

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