How Oxford students defeated an attempt to censor us

by Oxford Students for Life

36 hours before Wednesday’s OUSU Council meeting, we realised that our freedom of expression was under attack. The agenda for the meeting included a motion titled ‘Advertising ban on LIFE’. It included various allegations about LIFE, a charity with whom OSFL is not affiliated but who do a lot of excellent work. Then we noticed a little clause which seemed to go way, way beyond advertising regulations. It looked, at first glance, like an attack on free speech. On closer investigation, it still looked like an attack on free speech.

‘OUSU resolves

2. Never to platform any group or organisation which provides directional advice around abortion or explicitly stands against women’s right to choose.’

‘Never to platform’ sounds rather like a no platform policy. ‘Stands against women’s right to choose’ is, needless to say, a euphemism for ‘defends the right to life of the unborn’. In other words, the OUSU motion, if passed, would ban us from anything involving OUSU. At Oxford, the Student Union has less authority than at other universities. Still, this was a direct threat. We started getting emails from both friends and strangers, asking if we’d seen the motion and whether anything could be done about it. We quickly prepared to oppose it. And we turned up at St John’s auditorium – committee, society members, and friends of OSFL – at 5.30 yesterday to see what could be done.


Platforms and promotions

After more than an hour of admin, Sarah Pine, the OUSU Vice-President (Women), proposed the motion, seconded by Alasdair Lennon, the President of St John’s JCR. But they also wanted to change the wording – the first confusion of the evening, and not the last. Sarah said she had written the motion in a hurry, and would now like to change ‘platform’ to ‘promote’. What did that mean, exactly? We tried to find out during the next section, the ‘Short factual questions’. There were quite a lot of questions, from pro-lifers and others. Would this apply to, say, religious groups who have pro-life views? No, the answer came back. How would that be written into the clause? Well – the proposers replied – it could be said that it only applied to societies which ‘stand against women’s right to choose’ as an explicit part of their identity.

Of course, that shouldn’t include OSFL. Opposing women’s right to choose is no part of our campaigning; what we campaign for is the dignity of human life at every stage. But to a certain kind of pro-choice mindset, ‘standing against women’s right to choose’ would obviously apply to OSFL. We had been singled out – which was a kind of compliment, but still unsettling. And others were unsettled on our behalf. Would this mean, someone asked, that OSFL couldn’t have a stall at Freshers’ Fair, which OUSU run? Yes, said Alasdair (who had seconded the motion): no stall at Freshers’ Fair for OSFL. Sarah, the motion’s proposer, agreed.

The barrage of questions continued, as did the close scrutiny of the wording. What, exactly, was the difference between no-platform and no-promotion? Sarah replied that platforming means presenting something, whereas promoting is presenting something with a positive spin. She then asked hesitantly: ‘Does that make sense?’ An audible murmur of ‘No’came from several different directions.

In the bud

Now Barnaby Raine, who had seconded the amendment, made a speech. No, he said, the ‘promotes’ term wouldn’t bar us from Freshers’ Fair. Sarah agreed. But a few minutes before she had said otherwise – as had Alasdair. What kind of assurance was this?

OSFL opposed the ‘promote’ wording, on the grounds that it looked amazingly similar to a no-platform motion; and it was not made any more trustworthy by the fact that the clause’s supporters couldn’t work out whether or not it meant a Freshers’ Fair ban.

It should be said that a couple of us chatted afterwards to Sarah and Alasdair and they came across as decent people whose concern for women’s welfare is genuine – just as ours is. But then democratic freedoms aren’t necessarily lost because of devious plots; they’re often lost out of apathy and sloppy thinking. And as John Adams said, ‘Nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud, is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people.’ With the wording under attack, the clause’s supporters tried a third version. If not ‘Never to platform’ or ‘Never to promote’, what about ‘Never to give official formal support’?

But that begged the same question, we pointed out. It could easily be argued that you give a group official formal support by giving them a table at Freshers’ Fair. All the arguments for the clause seemed to say that it didn’t really have any implications. But if that was the case, we argued, you might as well get rid of the clause.

To their credit, two OUSU officers came in on the Freshers’ Fair issue. Louis Trup, the President-Elect, supported the new wording because he thought that – unlike the original wording – it would protect us at Freshers’ Fair; Anna Bazley, the Clubs and Societies Officer, said that since we are officially registered with the University, OUSU couldn’t prevent us even if they wanted to. That was good to hear; but all the same, what if circumstances and officers change? Why bring in a form of words which singles out OSFL? Wouldn’t that leave the door open to future encroachments on free speech?

The new wording was accepted on a vote; but with these questions going unanswered, Daniel Tomlinson, OUSU’s Vice-President (Charities and Communities), put forward a new amendment: to remove Clause 2 entirely.

Daniel’s proposition speech was pithy and reasonable. We’d seen, he argued, what a range of interpretations this clause produces even between the people who proposed it; two years down the line, when none of us were in the room, who knew how it might be interpreted? We wholeheartedly supported this amendment. But the motion’s proposers didn’t like it, and Alasdair spoke against it. Then the room voted. Lots of hands went up for and against. The OUSU officials counted assiduously. Then they looked at each other and grimaced. There was a certain amount of whispering. ‘We’re going to do a recount,’ they announced. ‘Raise your voting cards high, please.’ Those of us who could vote (you need to sign up in time to get a vote at OUSU Council) raised our orange voting cards again. It was obviously close. The OUSU officials counted even more assiduously, going row by row. There was more whispering. Finally they announced the result.

The amendment was carried by 27 to 24, with 8 abstentions. The attempted censorship had failed, just.


Laws and clauses

It should be remarked what a credit this is to Oxford – where democratic principles are still important to so many people – and to OUSU, whose process allowed a real debate on the ‘no platform’ Clause 2. Many of those who voted to strike down Clause 2 disagree with OSFL, but they voted, admirably, for free speech anyway.

Really, there should have been two motions: the ‘no platform’ motion and the ban on LIFE. Because they were tacked together, by the time we had dispensed with Clause 2, nobody was in the mood for further debate. The ban on LIFE advertising went through. LIFE responded today with strong words: ‘We challenge OUSU to provide proper objective evidence that the counselling we provide is directive… To imply that we are an organisation which gives misleading information which can be actively harmful is slanderous. OUSU should withdraw this statement immediately.’ These and other points were briefly touched on in the debate, but there was no time left for a searching discussion.

In truth, both Clause 2 (the failed attack on free speech) and Clause 1 (the ban on LIFE advertising) reflect something bigger: that the pro-choice movement increasingly works not by addressing the big issues, but by assaulting the freedom of pro-life groups and individuals. Pro-choice groups have said very little of late about gendercide, or about the appalling disability discrimination which is fixed into UK abortion law, or about the increasing public awareness of the humanity of the unborn. (There are exceptions, such as the feminist author Naomi Wolf.) But pro-choice groups have a huge amount to say about who should be allowed to counsel pregnant and post-abortive women, who should be allowed to stand where on the pavement, who should be allowed to have a stall at Freshers’ Fair. This seems to be the general direction of pro-choice activism at the moment. Cardiff have seen it recently.

And this may turn out to be a serious mistake on the part of pro-choicers: it is usually an unwise long-term policy to swap intellectual and moral credibility for legal domination. Anyway, yesterday evening was good practice for the next time somebody tries to attack democratic freedom.