OXFORD, England, Nov 27 (Reuters) Angry protesters clashed with police before an Oxford University student debate on free speech at which convicted Holocaust denier David Irving had been invited to speak.
Jewish and Muslim students joined raucous demonstrations outside the Oxford Union yestrday, a prestigious 184-year-old debating society that has hosted prominent figures such as former US President Bill Clinton and pop singer Michael Jackson.
The protests turned chaotic when around 30 demonstrators broke through police barricades to launch an assault on the union building, where Irving had taken up his seat several hours before the event was due to begin to avoid any violence.
The start of the debate was delayed as police battled to remove several sit-in protesters from the packed union hall.
Irving had been invited to speak alongside Nick Griffin, the leader of the far-right British National Party, whose anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim views have sparked heated argument in the past. Four others were to debate against them.
A 69-year-old historian, Irving has written some 30 controversial books, several of which defend Hitler and deny the systematic extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis.
Irving, who frequently seeks publicity, served a jail sentence in Austria in 2006 for glorifying the Nazi Party. He has been branded anti-Semitic and a racist by a British judge.
Commentators have lined up to condemn the union for staging the debate, saying the student-led organisation is giving a platform to extremism partly in an effort to attract attention.
The union has previously invited Kermit the Frog to speak.
Enraged at Irving's invitation, one Conservative politician resigned his life membership of the union, and several prominent people, including Britain's Minister of Defence Des Browne, have cancelled engagements to speak at future debates.
''IRRESPONSIBLE'' Oxford Union President Luke Tryl defended the decision to invite Griffin and Irving saying the best way to counter extremism is to defeat it intellectually in debate. Members of the union voted two-to-one to allow the debate to go ahead.
''These people are not being given a platform to extol their views but are coming to talk about the limits of free speech,'' he wrote in a letter to union members who had expressed concern.
''It is my belief that pushing the views of these people underground achieves nothing ... Stopping them speaking only allows them to become free speech martyrs.'' Britain's interior minister, Jacqui Smith, herself an Oxford graduate, stopped short of condemning the debate, but said that Irving's and Griffin's words would be closely watched, saying there was legislation that would prevent them ''overstepping''.
''The Oxford Union society is, of course, a debating society,'' she told parliament when asked for her opinion.
''I think it is up to them to make their own decisions but I completely deplore the views and attitudes of those who will be speaking there in this debate.'' Ned Temko, the chief political correspondent of the Observer newspaper and a former editor of the Jewish Chronicle, said it was disingenous of the debating society to invite extremists and then try to hide behind the banner of freedom of speech.
''It's not a question about giving them a platform, it's about giving them credibility,'' he told the BBC. ''It's ridiculous and it's irresponsible.'' Reuters AK VP0425