Oxford Students for Life

Promoting a culture of life in the University and beyond

Tag: free speech

OSFL Statement on the Report on Freedom of Speech in Universities

OSFL members ready to share the hope that the pro-life movement brings, uninhibited by concerns about freedom of speech

Last week saw the release of a report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights about Freedom of Speech in Universities. The report synthesises evidence from a wide range of groups and sources, discussing a large variety of cases where students have had their free speech limited in the university setting. Some of the factors identified as inhibiting free speech include no platforming policies and safe spaces, misapplication of the prevent duty, and over-zealous bureaucracy.

While it recognises that the media has exaggerated the extent of the suppression of free speech (Paragraph 35), the report acknowledges that there have been incidents where free speech has been inhibited. The protest organised by the Women’s Campaign against our Abortion in Ireland event in November 2017 forms part of the body of evidence indicating that some protests deny freedom of speech to those against whom they are protesting. In our press release at the time of the event, we noted that ‘WomCam of course have a right to freedom to expression. But a right to freedom of speech does not mean the right to prevent other people from speaking’, a principle which has been affirmed by this report, which asserts that ‘when protests become so disruptive that they prevent the speakers from speaking or intimidate those attending’, then ‘freedom of expression is unduly interfered with’ (Paragraph 42). It is encouraging that the report stresses the duty of universities to ‘initiate disciplinary measures if individual students or student groups seek to stop legal speech, or breach the institution’s code of conduct on freedom of speech’ (Paragraph 50), and for the police to intervene in cases where protesters are committing criminal acts.

The report acknowledges that there are sometimes proper, legal restrictions on free speech, ‘where speech leads to unlawful harassment of individuals or groups protected by the Equality Act 2010’ (Paragraph 54). However, it is also noted that free speech encompasses the right to say things which others may find offensive, and that ‘unless it is unlawful, speech should normally be allowed’ (Paragraph 54).

Another important area highlighted by the report is the subtle effects of bureaucracy which can act as a ‘disincentive’ for students in organising events and can thus have a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech (Paragraph 37). This is an issue which has affected OSFL in recent times; problems related to bureaucracy which we have encountered in the last few months include delayed response time to inquiries about room bookings (in one case, a request submitted seven weeks in advance was only finalised five weeks later), and difficult conditions imposed on room usage such as not being allowed to take photos, only being allowed to advertise events internally, and having to pay for a security guard for our events. It is therefore encouraging that the report recognises the hurdles that face societies in exercising their right to freedom of speech and the subtle, but nonetheless serious, ways in which bureaucracy can be inhibiting.

In light of OSFL’s situation, in which protests are a potential reality, the report’s recommendation that security should be provided for events where necessary, and that this should be funded by the university (Paragraph 95), is very welcome, as small student societies such as OSFL will struggle if the burden and cost of defending their right to freedom of speech and preventing protests is laid at their feet.

Given the challenges to free speech noted in the report, it is a relief that several measures to be taken to secure free speech in the university setting are laid out. In addition to the measures already mentioned, the recent introduction of the Office for Students is also discussed, with its role denoted as that of monitoring and overseeing free speech within universities (Paragraph 27). The denouncement of the use of safe spaces insofar as they seek to inhibit free speech (Paragraph 6) is also encouraging.

Following the publication of this report, OSFL are hopeful that we will be able to continue our work in promoting a culture of life at the university uninhibited. We hope that the proposals for the protection of free speech are implemented as outlined in the report, and that the Office for Students will commit to removing the barriers and burdens inhibiting free speech, such that freedom of speech in universities is protected and promoted.

Freedom of Speech in Universities: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt201719/jtselect/jtrights/589/589.pdf [Accessed on 28/03/2018]

Statement from Oxford Students for Life Responding to Oxford SU’s “Right to protest, Right to choose” statement

With their latest statement, WomCam have decided to double down on their attack on free speech, while claiming that they are doing no such thing.

They claim in their statement that they “were not protesting Oxford Students for Life or their speakers’ right to free speech” and that they “were not breaking the law”.

We’ve received legal advice that WomCam were breaking the law precisely because they were denying our freedom of speech.

Under Section 43 of the Education (No 2) Act 1986, the University is required “to issue and keep up to date a code of practice to be followed by all members, students and employees of the University for the organisation of meetings and other events”.

The code of practice is as follows:

“Members, students and employees of the University must conduct themselves at meetings and other events on University and OUSU premises so as to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the University and for visiting speakers. The University believes that a culture of free, open and robust discussion can be achieved only if all concerned avoid needlessly offensive or provocative action and language. The freedom protected by this Code of Practice is confined to the exercise of freedom of speech within the law.”

Given that the protesters shouted down the event continuously for 40 minutes, called the attendees and speakers “anti-choice bigots”, gave attendees the middle finger, and blocked the projector screen, we’re confident that they engaged in “needlessly offensive or provocative action and language” and did not “conduct themselves at meetings and other events on University and OUSU premises so as to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the University and for visiting speakers.”

Considering Oxford SU’s statement that “Bodily autonomy is not up for debate”, they confirm in their statement itself that they were not acting to facilitate “open and robust discussion”.

We’ve received legal advice that had they protested outside, or even staged a walk-out, they would have been within their rights. But disrupting the event for 40 minutes in this way breached the University’s Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech. By ignoring security requests to leave the venue, they were also guilty of aggravated trespass.

WomCam of course have a right to freedom to expression. But a right to freedom of speech does not mean the right to prevent other people from speaking.

Press Release: Oxford Students for Life Expresses Sadness and Anger at Disruptive Protest by Oxford SU WomCam

Oxford Students for Life have expressed their sadness and anger at “a deliberate attempt to shut down discussion and dialogue through harassment and bullying”. The disruptive protest was organised by the Oxford SU Women’s Campaign to target OSFL’s “Abortion in Ireland” event on Wednesday 1st November at St John’s College.

Anna Branford, co-president of OSFL explains: “At the beginning of the event, I explicitly welcomed all people, whatever their views, to the talk, and emphasised that the format of the evening was such that half the time would be allotted to the two speakers – Breda O’Brien of the Irish Times and barrister Lorcan Price – and the other half would be fully open to questions.

“One minute into her presentation, a group of approximately fifteen protesters from the Oxford SU’s WomCam stood up and chanted slogans to shout down Breda and prevent her from being heard. It was impossible for the committee or security to engage in any meaningful manner with the protesters. This continued for approximately forty minutes: protesters shouted, jeered, stood in front of the projector and chanted from a pre-prepared “chant sheet” including ‘Pro-life, that’s a lie, you don’t care if women die’.”

OSFL secretary, Georgia Clarke, said: “the saddening reality was that we were not given any opportunity to respond to these hurtful claims, nor give any justification for our views. Instead, we were bullied into silence.”

Anna Branford went on to say: “We had attempted to create an atmosphere in which all views were welcome and everyone would have a chance to speak, but were instead met with shouting, middle fingers and vitriol. Realising that they were uninterested in talking, some of us made signs of our own. I held one that said “ I’m a woman, where is my right to speak?”, while Georgia carried one saying “Is this what dialogue looks like?

“St John’s had hired security because they knew there would be a protest of some kind. They asked the protesters to leave multiple times and were ignored. One of the security guards tried to remove one of the protesters and there was a brief altercation.

“On foot of that, the security guard called the police as they were now guilty of aggravated trespassing. Eventually, the speakers were moved into another room and the protesters were left to shout themselves out, but not before gathering outside the window of the second room and banging on the windows while continuing to shout at the people inside.”

She went on to say: “It is such a shame that the protesters never listened to what we actually had to say. Had they heard Breda O’Brien’s presentation, they would have realised just how much we do care if women die, contrary to their chanting, and they would have heard the truth about Savita Halappanavar’s tragic death. Their disruption and refusal to engage meant that we could not show them the evidence that Ireland is as safe a place to give birth as the UK.

She continued: “I was disappointed that we never managed to discuss the issue with the protesters or engage in any kind of debate with them, but I was glad that we were eventually able to continue with the event and they had ultimately failed to achieve their goal of silencing us.”

Georgia Clarke added: “The irony was that the actions of Oxford SU’s WomCam, which ought to represent women of the university, resulted in the harassment of many women present for the event, some of whom were driven to tears. As committee members, we have a duty of care to those who attend our events, and it was distressing not being able to provide the supportive and open environment we had promised. We invited students to hear speakers, not to be shouted at. The shouting essentially amounted to an attempt to no-platform our speakers. In being party to this protest, the Oxford SU is making us feel like neither we, nor our views, are welcome to even be heard in this university.”

Tips for Being Pro-Life Online

Being publicly pro-life can be tough – especially on the Internet. As someone who has posted op-eds I’ve written about pro-life issues, pictures of me and my friends at the March for Life in Washington, DC, and most of the undercover videos published by the Center for Medical Progress last summer, I have taken my share of public abuse on social media for my pro-life views. These are plain for all to see. But what people don’t see when they look at my page are the tens of productive discussions my posts have led to, offline. I’ve received just as many notes thanking me for my posts and the encouragement they give to those afraid to speak up about their pro-life positions. These posts have also led to in-depth and in-person conversations in which people who had never considered the issue before take one step closer to being pro-life. For every note I’ve received, I hope there are dozens more who have thought about the issue more seriously because they have seen my Facebook page. This makes the ridicule and conflict I often face eminently worthwhile.

Though I have by no means mastered the art of being a pro-life social media warrior, I will offer five tips from my experience about how to have more productive conversations about pro-life issues on social media platforms.

  1. Remember your audience.

If you’re American, fifty percent of your contacts are likely to be pro-choice. If you’re English, it’s more like ninety percent. Notwithstanding the tendency we have to befriend people of similar views, many if not most of the people seeing your posts are likely to disagree with you. When you write something, do so with the image of walking on a stage and speaking to 1,000 of your closest friends through a microphone (half of whom are booing you), not like you’re sitting in your parents’ basement alone with a laptop. That will help you manage the tone of your message and double-check the accuracy of your claims.

  1. Have a “hook.”

It’s helpful to anchor your comments by referring to current events instead of posting out of the blue. This increases the likelihood that someone will pay attention to your post when scrolling through their newsfeed. Plus, if your comments are timely and relevant, it won’t feel like you’re just moralizing your Facebook friends. People hate that.

  1. Back up your claims.

When you do post an article, be sure that it comes from a reliable source. This can be difficult to do in a media climate that is so blatantly pro-choice, but it’s worth the effort to add some authority to your claims. The facts surrounding such a controversial issue will always be matters of debate. However, you need to have a plausible explanation for your opinion, lest you be dismissed offhand.

  1. Watch your tone.

The pro-life message is a positive one: we appreciate the beauty and significance of every human life. Our tone must reflect that, and our pro-life social media presence can’t be limited to posting images of aborted fetuses (although such a strategy has a time and place). We lose when we do that because our tone becomes angry, negative, and off-putting. All the pro-choice side needs to do is find a famous actress to speak about the importance of abortion as a women’s rights cause. When it looks like pro-choicers are promoting a tangible good and pro-lifers are fighting against it, we have lost in the court of public opinion. So in addition to highlighting the horror of abortion, we have to post twice as much about the positive pro-life work that’s happening, not just for the unborn, but also for the elderly. A picture with a grandparent or baby, a link to a group facilitating adoption, a calendar of events at the local convalescent home — these are all subtle messages that will (hopefully) not provoke a big fight, but will celebrate every human life.

  1. Manage the comments.

When you are going to post something controversial, plan ahead. Choose your timing carefully so that you have a day on which you can manage the comments. Even if you post a coherent, factually proven point, your efforts will have the opposite effect you intend if there are a bunch of unanswered comments beneath it. It is best to arrange for a handful of people to keep an eye on the post and can come to your aid when necessary so you aren’t overwhelmed and it doesn’t look like you’re the only one of your friends with pro-life views. Furthermore, in managing the comments, remember that it is your page. You can choose the content of the discussion, and delete comments that are accusatory, irrelevant, or rude. Finally, don’t allow someone to bait you into saying anything that could be taken out of context later. Even if you delete content on Facebook, it is out there forever.

Social media is an important tool for promoting the pro-life cause in our generation. Its strength lies in its ability to reach a lot of people at once, many of whom may not have thought one way or another about the issue. Unfortunately, the breadth of reach often corresponds with a lack of depth. In a personal conversation about pro-life issues, you’re unlikely to change someone’s view completely — much less so on social media. You can’t expect a post or comment war to change someone’s heart. After all, the pro-life battle is one about hearts more than minds — no argument can prove beyond dispute that human life is worth living and protecting, even in the most difficult circumstances. People need to see this and internalize it for themselves. Our witness, in our daily lives and on social media, can help get them there, one step and one post at a time.

Aurora Griffin is a Rhodes Scholar from California

OSFL in the news – a roundup

The last fortnight has been a particularly busy one for OSFL. The attempt to block our right to free speech has understandably been met with a considerable reaction well beyond the dreaming spires of Oxford. An eventful OUSU Council meeting, where the attack on free speech failed but a motion to ban LIFE advertising passed, has been reported comprehensively not only in university newspapers but also in national and international media.

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The Cherwell, the oldest independent student paper in Oxford, focused primarily on OUSU’s decision to ban LIFE advertising. The OSFL President is briefly quoted as saying: “we’re very pleased that OUSU Council voted to defend free expression against an undemocratic no-platform clause”. The response of LIFE is also quoted, questioning whether a truly pro-choice group would seek to deny its pregnant women non-directive counselling and the opportunity for accommodation and practical support.

LIFE themselves published a response to the motion on their website. It was very similar to what was quoted by the Cherwell and strongly questioned the legitimacy behind OUSU’s claims that they offered only a directive service. They also commended OSFL for “resisting this authoritarian attempt by a small group of students to stifle freedom of expression at the University of Oxford”.

The story also reached the Catholic Herald. It picked up on the fact that the clause in the OUSU motion never to platform pro-life groups raised concerns not only among pro-life students but the majority of students who wished to uphold the principles of free speech.

The blog ‘Conservative Woman’ published an article about the suppression of free speech on campus. They used OSFL’s fight at the OUSU Council as an example, as well as a demonstration outside an abortion debate held in Cambridge by their feminist society. The blog quotes Ann Furedi, Chief Executive of BPAS, talking about the “the moral cowardice of no-platforming”.

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Life Site News, perhaps the biggest pro-life news website in the world, described in detail the OUSU Council meeting and its results. The article also mentions in tandem the demonstration in Cambridge, and the importance of making sure there is enough opportunity to see these issues discussed.

For those of you learning Finnish in your spare time, news of the Council meeting even reached Finland. I would love to summarise it for you but fear that may be a little beyond me.

(J.C.)

Ten great quotes about free speech which aren’t from Voltaire or George Orwell

What would it matter, anyway, if Oxford Students For Life were to be no-platformed by Oxford University Students Union? Student politics isn’t that big a deal, is it? Well, perhaps not, but here’s the point. The difference between liberal democracy and authoritarianism does often lie in little things. In a liberal democracy, if someone tries to take away your basic rights, you can have recourse to the existing institutions and they will defend you. That’s what happened last week: someone tried to take away our free expression, we had recourse to OUSU Council, and OUSU Council defended us. Well done, OUSU Council.

Even so, the vote was close enough that this might be a good moment to remember some of the most powerful statements in favour of free speech. And though we may not include the one by a certain French author, we will defend to the death your right to quote it.

1. Aung San Suu Kyi

‘Democracy acknowledges the right to differ as well as the duty to settle differences peacefully. Authoritarian governments see criticism of their actions and doctrines as a challenge to combat. ’

2. Benjamin Franklin

benjamin-franklin-ftr

‘Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.’

3. Noam Chomsky

‘Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of free speech.’

4. Lucien Bourjeily

‘Freedom of expression is actually a way for people to know themselves better, and to understand themselves better. Because without it, you become a stranger to yourself.’

5. John Stuart Mill

john-stuart-mill

‘The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.’

6. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights

‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’

7. Philip Pullman

‘No one has the right to live without being shocked.’

8. Peggy Noonan

‘We don’t need to ‘control’ free speech, we need to control ourselves.’

9.  Jacques Barzun

‘Democracy, to maintain itself, must repeatedly conquer every cell and corner of the nation. How many of our public institutions and private businesses, our schools, hospitals, and domestic hearths are in reality little fascist states where freedom of speech is more rigorously excluded than vermin?’

10. Neil Gaiman

‘If you don’t stand up for the stuff you don’t like, when they come for the stuff you do like, you’ve already lost.’

How Oxford students defeated an attempt to censor us

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.