Magdalen College President defends students' right to 'free speech'

Magdalen College President defends Oxford students’ right to ‘free speech and political debate’ after Boris Johnson joined backlash against vote to remove portrait of the Queen from common room

  • Graduate students said Queen Elizabeth was a ‘symbol of recent colonial history’
  • Common room president insisted he wanted to make the area a ‘neutral space’
  • Boris Johnson’s spokesman said the PM backed criticism by Gavin Williamson 

The President of an Oxford college whose graduates voted to remove a portrait of the Queen from their common room has defended the students’ right to ‘free speech and political debate’.

Boris Johnson yesterday joined the backlash against members of Magdalen College Middle Common Room (MCR), who voted overwhelmingly to remove the photographic print of the monarch.

The decision was made after she was described as a ‘symbol of recent colonial history’ who could make some people feel unwelcome – a verdict described as ‘absurd’ by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, which was then echoed by the Prime Minister. 

Magdalen head, Dinah Rose QC, emphasised that the students were not representative of the college, but offered them her support. 

In a series of tweets, she said: ‘Here are some facts about Magdalen College and HM the Queen.

‘The Middle Common Room is an organisation of graduate students. They don’t represent the College.

‘A few years ago, in about 2013, they bought a print of a photo of the Queen to decorate their common room.

‘They recently voted to take it down. Both of these decisions are their own to take, not the College’s.

‘Magdalen strongly supports free speech and political debate, and the MCR’S right to autonomy.

‘Maybe they’ll vote to put it up again, maybe they won’t. Meanwhile, the photo will be safely stored.’

Magdalen head, Dinah Rose QC, emphasised that the students were not representative of the college, but offered them her support

Members of the Middle Common Room at Magdalen College – which is made up of graduates – overwhelmingly backed the removal of a portrait of the Queen

Boris Johnson’s (seen yesterday) spokesman said that he supported Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s criticism of the Oxford students 

She finished: ‘Being a student is about more than studying. It’s about exploring and debating ideas. It’s sometimes about provoking the older generation. Looks like that isn’t so hard to do these days.’

It comes after Mr Williamson, the Education Secretary criticised the move on Tuesday night, and yesterday a Number 10 spokesman responded: ‘You have had the Education Secretary’s words, which the PM supports.’

Meanwhile, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick called the row ‘student union politics’, but said he is ‘proud’ to have a portrait of the Queen in his office. 

He told BBC Breakfast today: ‘I’m a huge fan and supporter of Her Majesty the Queen, I think we are incredibly lucky to live in a country with a head of state of her stature.

‘I wouldn’t want anyone to disrespect her out of ignorance in this way, but I don’t think that we should waste too much time on student union politics.’

Yesterday evening, Mr Williamson tweeted: ‘Oxford University students removing a picture of the Queen is simply absurd.

‘She is the Head of State and a symbol of what is best about the UK. During her long reign she has worked tirelessly to promote British values of tolerance, inclusivity and respect around the world.’

Political website Guido Fawkes reported that the motion to remove the portrait was launched to make members ‘feel welcome’, with one student said to have commented ‘patriotism and colonialism are not really separable’.

The MCR president is Matthew Katzman, a lecturer in computer science and the son of a top lawyer at international firm Steptoe & Johnson. His family live in a £4million mansion in Washington DC, where he attended $48,000-a-year Sidwell Friends School, a historic Quaker private college. 

Today barrister Dinah Rose, president of Magdalen, said staff had received ‘threatening messages’ over the controversy, as she defended students’ right to ‘free speech and political debate’.

She tweeted: ‘So if you are one of the people currently sending obscene and threatening messages to the college staff, you might consider pausing, and asking yourself whether that is really the best way to show your respect for the Queen.

‘Or whether she’d be more likely to support the traditions of free debate and democratic decision-making that we are keeping alive at Magdalen.’

Yesterday evening, Mr Williamson tweeted: ‘Oxford University students removing a picture of the Queen is simply absurd’

Meanwhile, Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick called the row ‘student union politics’, but said he is ‘proud’ to have a portrait of the Queen in his office

In a series of tweets, she emphasised that the students are not representative of the college, but added: ‘Magdalen strongly supports free speech and political debate, and the MCR’S right to autonomy.

‘Maybe they’ll vote to put it up again, maybe they won’t. Meanwhile, the photo will be safely stored.’

She concluded that being a student is about ‘exploring and debating ideas’ and often about ‘provoking the older generation’, adding: ‘Looks like that isn’t so hard to do these days.’ 

On its website, Magdalen College Middle Common Room describes itself as ‘one of the biggest graduate communities of the traditional Oxford colleges’.

It says: ‘Our graduates come from many different countries throughout the world, and have diverse interests, academic and otherwise.

‘The MCR forms an integral part of the Magdalen graduate experience – not only do we organise social and cultural events for students so that we can make the utmost out of our time in Oxford, but we also provide a network of support for graduate life in representing the concerns of students to the college.’ 

Mr Williamson has since faced criticism from the University and College Union (UCU), which said the comments were a ‘distraction from the disastrous, systemic failings this Government has presided over in higher education’.

Matthew Katzman (pictured), tables all motions as part of his position as President of the Middle Common Room (MCR) at Magdalen College, Oxford 

General secretary Jo Grady said: ‘Williamson styles himself as a champion of free speech and academic freedom, but never misses an opportunity to attack staff and students who are merely exercising these rights.

‘As university staff have already pointed out, this Government doesn’t care about freedom of speech on campus, and its attempts to change the law should be seen as nothing other than a Trojan horse for policing what students and staff can and cannot do.’

Mr Katzman told MailOnline last night: ‘The Magdalen College MCR yesterday [Monday] voted to remove an inexpensive print of the queen that was hung in the common room a few years ago (a motion I brought forward in my role as MCR President as I do all motions raised in a sub-committee). 

‘It is being stored securely and will remain in the MCR’s art collection. 

‘The action was taken after a discussion of the purpose of such a space, and it was decided that the room should be a welcoming, neutral place for all members regardless of background, demographic, or views. 

‘The Royal Family is on display in many areas of the college, and it was ultimately agreed that it was an unnecessary addition to the common room. 

‘The views of the MCR do not reflect the views of Magdalen College, and the aesthetic decisions made by the voting members of its committee do not equate to a statement on the Queen. 

‘Indeed, no stance was taken on the Queen or the Royal Family – the conclusion was simply that there were better places for this print to be hung.’  

The Queen walking through the cloisters at Magdalen College alongside college president David Clary during a visit on November 27, 2008

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