Committee report highlights censoring of pro-life students in universities
27 March 2018
Protesters disrupt Oxford Students for Life's event on abortion in Ireland. Image: The Tricolour
It makes some welcome conclusions
A new report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights on free speech in universities has highlighted the censorship faced by pro-life student groups on campus.
The Committee started an inquiry into the issue following a number of high-profile reports of events being shut down or disrrupted, which led to the minister for higher education telling universities they have a legal duty to uphold free speech, and the setting up of the Office for Students.
One of the most targeted groups
Freedom of Speech in Universities, the fourth report of the Joint Committee, found that there are serious concerns over barriers to free speech in universities, and frequently referenced the experiences of pro-life societies. One of the key findings is "many of the incidents in which free speech is restricted often
revolve around discussion of key controversial or divisive issues, which can stir up strong
emotions. Amongst the things around which there is emotional debate are speech which is
thought to incite or support terrorism; pro-life or anti-abortion views; Transgender issues..."
The report continues: "Our evidence suggests that incidents where freedom of expression has been restricted
usually involve groups who are perceived as minorities, or as having views which some
could consider to be offensive, but which are not necessarily unlawful; these could include
pro- or anti-abortion views, issues of sexuality or gender, and matters concerning faith or
"Unacceptable" disruptive protests
One particular incidence of the free speech of pro-life students being compromised was cited as a major example of intolerance and disruptive protests.
An event called “Abortion in Ireland” organised by the Oxford Students for Life
society in November 2017 was disrupted by a protest organised by the Oxford Student
Union Women’s Campaign. The protest was held inside the room and prevented the
speakers from being heard for around 40 minutes of the event. Police were called and
the event organisers were asked to move rooms twice before the event could proceed.
Despite the disruptive nature of the protest, the Student Union published two statements
in support of the protest the next day.
Full accounts of this event were provided in written evidence by Oxford Students for Life and Mr Micheal Wee. In an apparent condemnation of this disruption of OSFL's event, the report says that while there is a right to peaceful protest, "it is unacceptable for
protesters to deliberately conceal their identities, break in with clear intention to intimidate those exercising their rights to attend meetings or to seek to stop events." It also clearly states that "student societies should not stop other student societies from holding their meetings."
No safe space for pro-life students
As well as "incidents of unacceptable intimidatory behaviour by protesters", the report identified a number of factors which may interfere with freedom of speech at universities, including the incorrect use of "safe-space" and "no platforming" policies, and unnecessary bureaucracy in organising events. The concept of "safe spaces" came under particular criticism, with the report saying:
We received evidence which showed that safe space policies, when extended too far, can
restrict the expression of groups with unpopular but legal views, or can restrict their
related rights to freedom of association. Pro-life and humanist and secular groups
appear to have been particularly affected by the student unions’ desire to build inclusive
campuses free from harassment and fear. We were told about instances where these groups
are faced with difficulties getting representation at their university’s freshers’ fayre or are
subject to greater scrutiny from the students’ union during freshers’ week or have been
banned entirely by the student union.
Minority views should be heard
Examples given include a motion made by Oxford University Student Union which read: "OUSU resolve Never to platform any group or organisation which provides directional advice around abortion or explicitly stands against women’s right to choose. The Alliance of Pro-Life Students and other submissions mention the student union at Strathclyde University barring Strathclyde Life Action from forming an official pro-life society, as well as Glasgow University denying the Protection of Unborn People Society affiliation with the student union because their aims did "did not align" with the ethos of the student union.
"Universities must be places where open and uncensored debate (within the law) can
take place so students can think for themselves and develop their own opinions on
ideas which may be unpopular, controversial or provocative," the report concluded. "However, the concept of
safe spaces is either too broad or very vague and therefore we do not find it helpful.
University is an environment where a range of opinions should be heard and explored.
Minority views should not be barred from student union premises."
Sign of hope
Rebecca Short, Communications Director of the Alliance of Pro-Life Students, joined others in welcoming this commitment to free speech, saying: "We are delighted that the report published today by the Joint Committee on Human Rights acknowledges the difficulties faced by pro-life students on their campuses. The Alliance of Pro-Life Students works hard to ensure that students are given a voice to advocate for the most vulnerable, and so we welcome the report’s statement that ‘university is an environment where a range of opinions should be heard and explored.’ After a difficult year of protests and censorship, this report is a sign of hope that those in power see the need for open discussion on topics deemed controversial. We will continue to fight actively and tirelessly against campus censorship, and look forward to following the Government’s response to this consultation."
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