Oxford University has denied accusations by Baroness Deech that it ignored laws on race hate and freedom of speech in allowing the Oxford Union to host Holocaust-denier David Irving and BNP leader Nick Griffin last November.
Lady Deech, a former Oxford chair of admissions, told the Lords that she had complained to the university authorities that they had not acted to stop the debating society inviting Griffin and Irving to take part in the event, which was severely disrupted by demonstrators.
She also claimed that the university’s director of public affairs, Jeremy Harris, had told her that he did not know whether or not the university had complied with the law.
“It seems that it did not take the advice that it should have on the race-relations obligations, and seemed unaware of the limits on freedom of speech, whether you like them or not, imposed by law.
“Along with other universities, it needs to study the law and its obligations, update the code of practice on freedom of speech and take action to promote good relations.
“The tools are there. [It] should consolidate the guidance that applies to campus racism. Students should be told to whom to complain and be helped to do so. Before we go forward, we must take care of the problems of the students we have.”
This week, Oxford University strenuously rebutted her allegations. A spokesman said: “In a private letter to Baroness Deech clearly marked confidential, the Director of Public Affairs [Mr Harris] sought to respond to issues she had raised about the reputational impact on the university of an Oxford Union event.
“Her remarks in the House of Lords did not accurately reflect that correspondence. He made it clear in the letter that while he was able to address reputational issues, he was not the right person to judge on legal compliance. The passage actually reads as follows: ‘So far as the contention that the university has failed in its compliance with relevant legislation, I am not in a position to judge.
“That must be a matter of legal opinion but I can assure you (as, again, I am sure you are aware) the university takes all matters of legal compliance seriously, as its status and reputation require.’”
On the question of the university’s compliance with legislation, the spokesman said: “The University takes its duties under the law extremely seriously. It regularly reviews policies and procedures. In relation to the Race Relations Amendment Act, the University published a race-equality policy and action plan in 2002.”
The university’s policy on dealing with harassment was also under review and should be completed in the autumn.
Its code of practice on freedom of speech was also to be redrafted by the university’s legal team and was already under way.