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Julian Assange: Cambridge Union in freedom of speech row over referendum on hosting Wikileaks founder

The move has prompted the resignation of the Union’s women’s officer Helen Dallas

Richard Garner
Monday 12 October 2015 17:00 BST
Julian Assange has been harboured by the Ecuadorian in London since 2012
Julian Assange has been harboured by the Ecuadorian in London since 2012 (Getty)

The Cambridge Union has become embroiled in a row over freedom of speech after deciding to launch a debate over whether it should offer a platform to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

The move prompted the resignation of the Union’s women’s officer Helen Dallas as Assange, who is currently living at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, has been accused of sexual offences in Sweden, which Assange has always denied.

In a statement the union accepted its decision had made Ms Dallas’ position at the union “incredibly difficult following this (referendum) decision”.

However, the union will go ahead with a vote of its entire membership on whether or not to host the Wikileaks founder who - if the vote is in favour - would appear by video link in a debate on November 11.

The row comes as the university society is celebrating its 200th anniversary - it was founded in 1815 on the basis of being a defender of free speech.

Julian Assange speaking via web cast from the Ecuadorian Embassy during an event on the sideline of the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council session (Getty)

Oliver Mosley, the president of the Union, said: “The union is a neutral forum that has in the past given a platform to all speakers that operate within the confines of regular society - without endorsing or condemning their views.”

However, he conceded the position of Assange was “unique”. “In this case we are faced with a decision regarding a man who exists outside that same society - and we cannot make a decision about whether or not to host him without the support of our membership.”

As a result, union members will debate the issue on October 21 - the day before the vote takes place.

Mr Mosley said that he acknowledged that - with hindsight - the Union should have involved Ms Dallas in the decision making process earlier. The vote to hold the debate was unanimous amongst the 13 voting members of the committee which did not include Ms Dallas.

The union said it was “sad” at her decision to resign, adding: “We accept that her position at the union became incredibly difficult following this decision and we would like to commend her and thank her for all the work she has put into this term’s forums and workshops.”

It added that the debate would be conducted with “sensitivity and decorum”. The Cambridge University Student Union would be invited to send representatives to speak - regardless of whether they were members.

The resignation comes after three other officers of the union have also decided to quit - although the union insists these resignations are “totally unrelated” to the Assange affair. Sources said that - in one case - the officer concerned was said to be uncomfortable with the working environment at the union.

Mr Mosley said it would be wrong to talk of the Cambridge Union being “in turmoil”. “We have 50 people working at the union,” he said. “Following Helen Dallas’ resignation, we still have 49.”

Assange, an Australian, was granted political asylum by the Ecuadorean government in 2012 after the UK courts granted an extradition order on allegations of sexual misconduct whilst on a visit to Sweden. He is fearful that his human rights might be violated if he goes to Sweden and that he might be handed over to the US authorities for prosecution over Wikileaks disclosures.

Last month, cases of alleged sexual misconduct against him were dropped but the Swedish authorities say they would still like to question him over an accusation of rape.

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