The Oxford Union: Freedom Of Expression In Universities
Universities are sacred precincts where all sorts of ideas are discussed and dissected to permit the expansion of knowledge. As such censorship, especially under threat, is anathema and counterproductive to ideals of free thought.
The threats against the President were organised by an assortment of Tamil and Sinhalese political activists opposed to President Rajapaksa. I am aware that activists from all over Europe were bussed to converge in London, making one doubt if it was a true exercise in democratic protest involving the British public.
The Oxford Union, after inviting the President had an obligation to allow the event to proceed. Now through the cancellation, they have failed to stand up for free speech and energised extremist forces, both Sinhalese and Tamil. The government too must note that by delaying a solution, liberal Tamils in the UK, considerable in numbers, were made to sit by passively during this sad episode and have been weakened.
What have these protestors really achieved? They might have humiliated their opponent but that is neither here nor there in the long term. But more substantially, they have prevented President Rajapaksa from expressing his own views. And, most saddening, they have prevented others who might have had serious issues with him from engaging in a dialog with him at the lecture. They have also vitiated the strength and prestige of the Oxford forum in that only speakers who are “acceptable” may now speak, thereby giving currency to the idea that there are those who can judge who is acceptable and who is not. Never in a university!
There are many lessons for us in Sri Lanka. People of all hues here have tended to use labels to impose censorship against those whom they do not like, not realising that the same censorship can be used against them one day. I am reminded of how I was prevented from working at University of Jaffna by the same forces that obstructed the Oxford Union speech simply because they did not like how I thought. At Ruhuna it was once said that the first Dean of Engineering had to be a Sinhalese. The Asian Tribune, with links to the government, has editorialised that at Jaffna the Vice Chancellor has to be a Hindu. Universities, not least the Oxford Union, must assert that we judge only ideas and not personages.
S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole, D.Sc. (Eng.) Lond.
Coordinator for Engineering, University of Jaffna, Former Member of the UGC