By Camilla Turner 27 May 2014
A renowned expert in cyber stalking said she felt “threatened” and “intimidated” by the ringleader of a campaign to boycott the Oxford Union while its president is being investigated by police over rape allegations.
Jennifer Perry, CEO of the Digital Trust and author of the UK guidelines on digital risks, has accused Sarah Pine, Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) vice president for women, of putting student safety at risk by attempting to derail her talk.
Ms Pine has mounted a campaign to stop keynote speakers addressing the Union while the president, who was arrested by police earlier this month on suspicion of rape and attempted rape of two undergraduates, remains in office.
Ms Perry, who spoke at an event on May 27, titled ‘Stalking and Digital Abuse Awareness’, along with three other expert panellists, denounced the boycott campaign as “wholly inappropriate” and said that Ms Pine had "pressurised" them to withdraw.
This comes after A C Grayling, master of New College of the Humanities, said the president is “innocent until proven guilty” and should not be subject to “the kangaroo court of opinion”.
Norman Finkelstein, the academic and author, is that latest keynote speaker to have cancelled his address at the Union, following the campaign led by Ms Pine.
Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble, David Mepham, UK Director of Human Rights Watch and Julie Meyer, the American entrepreneur and judge on the BBC’s Dragon’s Den, have also pulled out of addressing the historic debating society.
Ms Perry said she was subject to “an enormous amount of pressure” by Ms Pine, adding that she and her colleagues were asked “in very forceful terms” to cancel the talk which was “directed at keeping primarily women safe”.
Replying to Ms Pine's request to boycott the Union, Ms Perry said: "We simply do not understand why you believe it is in the interest of the students to stop them from hearing safety messages about stalking."
Ms Perry said: “It became apparent that [Ms Pine’s] agenda wasn’t about keeping women safe and comfortable and coming to the talk.
“It was more that they wanted another speaker not attending the Union. I don’t want to be hijacked by someone else’s political campaign.
“They have lost the objective of keeping women safe. And I think for a women’s group to do that is really unfortunate.
“I support anyone’s right to protest but I also believe I have a freedom of speech to go forward and speak. I am concerned that they are tramping on due process."
She added: "We are of course disappointed that such important safety issues have been curtailed by a political agenda."
Ms Perry said that she was given assurance by the Union that the president, Ben Sullivan, would not be present at the event.
The other panellists were Dr. Emma Short, co-founder at the National Centre for Cyberstalking Research, Alexis Bowater, a campaigner on violence against women, and Harry Fletcher, a criminal justice expert and parliamentary campaigner.
Ms Bowater said: “Our talk is about safety for women online and about a crime where victims get silenced by perpetrators.
“We have always been here to give victims their voices back. Nothing is going to stop us from doing that and I don’t think we are going to be silenced.”
Ms Pine said: “It is regrettable that Jennifer turned down our request for an alternative venue that was bigger and wheelchair accessible which was at the same time and could have reached more people.
“However, we have a OUSU women’s campaign harassment and stalking working group which is meeting this week and I am proud to be a part of.
“I think Jennifer is right when she stresses the importance opening up discussions around stalking.”
Ben Sullivan, president of the Union, wrote to forthcoming speakers, including General Petreaus and singer Paloma Faith, urging them “not to come to any pre-emptive judgements” about him, adding: "I feel the calls for my resignation are premature".
The letter, which was leaked to student newspaper Cherwell, said: “Acting upon legal advice, I am not yet able to give my side of the story. As such I currently do not even have the ability to defend myself from these allegations which I deny.
“I understand that you may not wish for the event to be hosted by me. If this is the case, we can easily arrange for the event to be held under the supervision of one of our committee members.”
Mr Sullivan, a 21-year-old student at Christ Church College, was arrested by police on May 7 on suspicion of rape and attempted rape of two undergraduates. He was released on bail until June 18 and denies the allegations.