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Following in the controversial footsteps of Columbia University's hosting of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York City last month, another prestigious academic institution, this time in Britain, has invited contentious guests to its campus.
The president of the Oxford Union debating society was criticized Friday night after he approached Holocaust denier David Irving, British National party chairman Nick Griffin and the Belarusian dictator, Alexander Lukoshenko, to speak at forthcoming events, the British Guardian reported Saturday morning.
Luke Tryl said he had asked Irving and Griffin to speak at the union's Free Speech Forum, due to take place at the end of November, adding that Lukoshenko, accused of a string of human rights abuses, had been approached to address students later in the term.
"The Oxford Union is famous for its commitment to free speech and although I do think these people have awful and abhorrent views I do think Oxford students are intelligent enough to challenge and ridicule them," he told the Guardian, adding that no formal decision on who would be invited had been made.
The move has already drawn widespread criticism from student groups and anti-fascist campaigners.
In a joint statement, Oxford Jewish Society presidents Daniel Bloch and Steven Altmann-Richer said: "It will be a disgrace if these discredited speakers are allowed a platform at a forum on free speech. They have an embarrassing history of disregard for legal restrictions on it. It will certainly go down as a black mark on the reputation of the Oxford Union."
Duncan Money, a second-year student at the university who says he has suffered a series of threats from rightwing extremists, said: "It is disappointing that the Oxford Union has chosen to promote and legitimize fascism ... Doubtless the controversy will bring them feverish excitement but for those of us who confront hate-filled bigots and are on the receiving end of death threats because of it, the issue is a bit more serious."
The BNP, a white nationalist political party in the United Kingdom, said Griffin would attend the event if it went ahead. However, the invitation to Lukoshenko was blocked by the Foreign Office, which said he was subject to an EU travel ban.
For his part, Irving, who told the Guardian last month that he was launching a comeback speaking tour in the UK, denied that he had received any formal approach from the Oxford Union but added that he would like to speak to the students there.
"I have had many invitations to speak there in the past but they normally get withdrawn after threats of violence and intimidation. It is a pity because I think there are a lot of students who would like to hear what I have to say."
Last month the discredited historian told the Guardian that he believed the Jews were responsible for what happened to them during the Second World War and that the "Jewish problem" was at the root of most of the wars of the last 100 years.
According to the BNP's constitution, the party is "committed to stemming and reversing the tide of non-white immigration and to restoring, by legal changes, negotiation and consent the overwhelmingly white makeup of the British population that existed in Britain prior to 1948." The BNP also proposes "firm but voluntary incentives for immigrants and their descendants to return home," and "it advocates the repeal of all anti-discrimination legislation, and restricts party membership to "indigenous British ethnic groups deriving from the class of 'Indigenous Caucasian'."