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Grayling defends decision to attend Union

Prominent philosopher and academic A.C. Grayling has written to OUSU Vice-President for Women Sarah Pine defending his decision to speak at the Oxford Union following the arrest of President Ben Sullivan. Grayling’s letter is in response to the open letter written by Pine and Helena Dollimore of St. Hilda’s, which urged Sullivan to resign and speakers to cancel planned visits to the Union.

Grayling’s letter stated, “I simply cannot, in all conscience, allow myself to act only on the basis of allegations and suspicions, or of conviction by the kangaroo court of opinion, or trial by press.”

This statement comes after Julie Meyer, Eric Whitacre, and the Secretary General of Interpol all pulled out of scheduled speaking engagements at the Union, citing concerns about the society’s leadership after reading the open letter which argued that “Mr Sullivan should step aside while still under investigation.”

Grayling wrote, “Because I am very much in sympathy with the motivations behind your call, it puts me in a difficult position! While wishing to support to the full the underlying concerns you have in view, there is the consideration that we have to take seriously that fundamental principle of the rule of law and the rights of individuals, namely, that all those accused of crimes are innocent until proved guilty.”

He continued, “These words seem such a cliché, but they really are the bedrock of a system of protection of the innocent against the power of the state or mightier individuals; and when someone is found to be guilty of crimes it is most often, in our system, on the basis of sound evidence and good argument. I think it is a duty to respect these principles.“ The letter goes on to discuss what Grayling calls “trial by press”. 

He states, “I simply cannot, in all conscience, allow myself to act only on the basis of allegations and suspicions, or of conviction by the kangaroo court of opinion, or trial by press – the means too often employed even in our own society to condemn before the evidence and the arguments have been properly examined.”

Grayling urged OUSU to reconsider their stance on the matter too, writing, “Indeed I very much wish that OUSU would be serious about this principle too – asking people to convict and punish someone before due process of law has taken its course is a bad direction to go in, and with great respect I urge you to reflect on that. You may of course know things about what lies behind the allegations in this current case, suggesting that there is real fire below the smoke – but even this would lie in the terrain of report and accusation until the matter has come to court.”

He finished the letter by clarifying that his appearance at the Union “is in no way an expression of opinion either way about the current situation of the Union’s President, or of support or otherwise for the individual himself.”

In response, Sarah Pine told Cherwell, “‘Helena and I acted from our personal perspectives and sense of justice. This isn’t an OUSU project. However, I am sure that my colleagues will be heartened to know that A.C. Grayling wishes them well.

“In relation to his paragraphs on human rights, I think the International Police are right on this one, Secretary General Noble said earlier this week that, ‘I am the Secretary General of INTERPOL, a law professor and a former prosecutor who fiercely believes that a person is innocent until proven guilty. What should the head of a society like the Oxford Union do if he is under investigation for rape and attempted rape? In my view, he should be guided by the best interests of his organization. He should not be guided by his own interests. In this case my advice to Ben Sullivan would be either to resign or take a leave of absence.’ Noble’s a law professor and realises that innocent until proven guilty does not mean business as usual. I also believe it sends a strong message of disempowerment to women.”

Professor Grayling’s talk, entitled ‘Arguing with the Gods’ went ahead without reference to either letter, the President’s arrest, or the ongoing unrest at the Union.

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