LONDON, May 10 (JTA) – A student group at Oxford has canceled a debate on freedom of speech that was to feature Holocaust denier David Irving.
The Oxford Union, a debating society, decided to call off the event at the last minute after intense pressure from a range of groups including the Union of Jewish Students, the Anti-Nazi League, the Association of University Teachers and Oxford’s own Student Union.
The Anti-Nazi League, which had planned protests at the debate, originally scheduled for Thursday, hailed the cancellation as “great news.”
“It would have been horrendous for David Irving to get to speak in Britain,” league spokeswoman Debbie Jack said.
The debate was to address the question of whether there should be restrictions on the freedom of speech of extremists.
Irving was scheduled to argue against restrictions, while Richard Rampton, one of the lawyers who successfully defended Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt from Irving’s libel lawsuit last year, was to argue in favor.
David Mitchell, a Jewish student at Oxford, coordinated campus opposition to the event.
After distributing leaflets and pressuring other members of the panel to pull out of the debate, he put motions to the Oxford Union condemning the Irving invitation and demanding that it be canceled.
At a four-hour meeting on Tuesday, students voted 95 to 15 in favor canceling the debate, union spokesman Daniel Johnson said.
Under union rules, the votes were not binding on President Amy Harland.
She said she would announce her decision on Wednesday morning, the day before the event was to take place. At 1 p.m., a notice went up saying that the event had been canceled.
“To see it happen at the 11th hour was spectacular,” Mitchell told JTA. “It’s not easy to cancel something like this at the last minute,” he added.
This is the third time in recent years that Oxford has canceled a planned Irving appearance.
But Johnson said that having him participate in a free speech debate was different.
“He was not coming to discuss his beliefs, but to participate in a debate with vigorous opposition,” he said.
The Board of Deputies, the umbrella organization that represents most British Jews, does not accept the distinction.
“By giving him a platform, whatever the topic, you are giving him a legitimacy that he did not have after the libel trial,” a Board spokesman said.
In a highly publicized London case last year, Irving lost his lawsuit against Lipstadt for calling him a Holocaust denier. In his ruling, the judge found that Irving “is a Holocaust denier, anti-Semitic and racist, and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.”