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Oxford demonstrators protest denial of Holocaust

Demonstrators protested Monday the appearance of a historian who denies the Holocaust and a far-right political party leader at the Oxford Union debating society.

Dozens gathered before a free speech forum featuring historian David Irving and British National Party leader Nick Griffin. The two men were bundled into the hall hours before the forum was to take place.

The protesters chanted "Keep Oxford fascist-free; We will defend democracy," at the noisy gathering.

Several students groups, including the Oxford Student Union and the university's Jewish and Muslim societies, have teamed up with Unite Against Fascism to organize the protest.

"It's our way of showing that we all stand together ... opposed to racism, opposed to hate," said Steven Altmann Richer, the co-president of the Oxford University Jewish Society. "Obviously we think the issue of free speech is very important, but it's very irresponsible to use the union's prestigious platform to lend legitimacy to the views of people like Nick Griffin and David Irving."

Union members voted Friday to allow the men to speak, despite calls to have the invitations revoked. The union's president, Luke Tryl, has said he invited the men to talk about the limits of free speech, not to expound on their views.

"The reason the Oxford Union was founded 184 years ago was to promote and defend freedom of speech. This is what this debate is about," he told Sky News on Sunday. "It is about an opportunity to challenge David Irving and Nick Griffin."

Irving was arrested in November 2005 in Austria on charges stemming from two speeches he gave in 1989 in which he was accused of denying that the Nazis exterminated 6 million Jews. Denying the Holocaust is a crime in Austria, which was occupied by the Nazis.

Irving was convicted in February 2006 and sentenced to three years in prison. He served 13 months and was released on probation. He arrived for Monday's forum carrying a ball and chain.

Irving has refused to use the term Holocaust, calling it a concept that "became cleverly marketed."

Griffin runs a party that campaigns on a fiercely anti-immigration and anti-Muslim platform.

Conservative lawmaker Julian Lewis, who addressed the Union last week in a debate on terrorism, said the students should be ashamed of themselves. In a letter to the union's officers and standing committee, Lewis said he was resigning his life membership "with great sadness."

"Nothing which happens in Monday's debate can possibly offset the boost you are giving to a couple of scoundrels who can put up with anything except being ignored," he wrote.

Last week several lawmakers, including Britain's Defense Secretary Des Browne, canceled speaking engagements at the union because they said they found it inappropriate to speak in the same place.

But Liberal Democrat lawmaker Evan Harris, who is billed to speak at the event, said banning Griffin and Irving would risk turning "bigots into martyrs."

"It is the views of these extremists which are a disgrace, not their right to hold their views," he said.