Here we go again. Despite cancelling on their Cambridge counterparts last year, Julian Assange is to address the Oxford Union this week via video-link from the Ecuadorian embassy. He will be speaking as part of an awards ceremony celebrating prominent whistleblowers.
Even for a society that thrives on press attention, this is a particularly dodgy move - and Oxford students know it. In response to his visit, many of them will assemble to protest against what they see as Assange’s cowardice in refusing to face his allegations, as well as the Union’s apparent disregard for victims of sexual violence.
It’s a complicated situation, so let's start off with a bit of background: on a visit to Sweden, Assange slept with two women who both later expressed concerns, alleging that he had not used a condom despite having been asked to. Fearing for their sexual health, they later went to a police station together to see if they could compel him to take an STD test. Based on what they were told, the police arrested Assange and questioned him about possible minor rape and molestation.
This is clearly not conclusive evidence that Julian Assange is a rapist, even of the 'minor' sort, but he’s certainly not helping himself by hiding in the only safe place in the world that will have him (his mum’s house probably doesn’t have similar political immunity), instead of just proving to us all that he’s not the criminal that a lot of the world currently thinks he is.
And now he’s dropping by the Oxford Union for a chat.
“But it promotes free speech!” they argue, conveniently ignoring the allegations against him. “Free speech, free speech, free speech,” they continue.
Ironically, this notion is only relevant if you’re talking about public dissent, the rather marvelous idea that if you’re unhappy about something, you’re allowed to make yourself heard. Everyone gets a say and the overall public reaction decides what the most favourable opinions are, casting the others out. In fact, protesters are planning on doing a bit of public dissenting when they assemble outside the Oxford Union during Assange’s talk - this is what free speech really is.
Organising a big event where everyone gathers to listen to what a potential rapist has to say is slightly different. Despite my best efforts, the world press doesn’t come flocking in its droves when I voice an opinion in public, but put me in a debating chamber full of a few hundred students and a video camera and all of a sudden the focus changes.
This is not free speech. This is a platform. Giving one of those to someone with a bloody great question mark over his head, and for the Oxford Union to ignore that is pretty insulting to the millions of women (and men) who have suffered sexual violence. And this is before you consider the nature of the ceremony. It celebrates prominent whistleblowers. The man is being praised. It doesn’t matter whether he’s talking about his work with Wikileaks or how many tiles are on the ceiling in the Ecuadorian embassy, the allegations cannot and must not be ignored.
“But he’s innocent until proven guilty!”
Correct, and this is currently being respected by the fact that Assange has not been charged; his only imprisonment is self-imposed.
It’s important to remember that ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is a legal maxim, not a social one. If you were suddenly arrested out of the blue, you wouldn’t be charged until you’d been given a fair trial, but this wouldn’t stop friends and colleagues from asking questions and possibly seeking to disassociate themselves with you. And it wouldn’t help things if you ran away and avoided trial.
Allegations build stigmas, and there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s even a whole body of law based around publicly quashing stigmas that are unfounded. It’s called defamation, and people spend a lot of money on it for a reason.
“But it’s all an inter-governmental conspiracy!”
Or so the group Women Against Rape seem to believe. But as far as his visit to Oxford is concerned, it doesn’t really make a difference whether Assange’s alleged persecution is a top secret operation plotted by world leaders or not. The allegations against him didn’t appear out of thin air, someone was brave enough to speak out. Rape conviction rates are incredibly low as it is, so it goes without saying that any allegation must be taken very seriously.
Besides, you’d hope that if governments really wanted to mess about behind the scenes, they’d do it a bit more competently than this.
Students aren’t protesting because of hypothetical situations and legal maxims. There’s a personal element to this. For many Oxford students, and indeed also many Union members, sexual violence is very real.
As it stands, they’re still welcoming him (and that all important press attention) with open arms as a “champion of free speech”, and so the obdurate refusal of prominent student bodies to acknowledge the seriousness of rape continues. The Union rather shockingly hopes that they can host Assange without “sanctioning or condoning his alleged private actions”. The truth is, they can’t.
Sebastian Salek is a freelance writer and a law student at Clare College, Cambridge. Follow him on Twitter here.