Oxford Students for Life

Promoting a culture of life in the University and beyond

Tag: ousu

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.”

A good day for student parents (updated)

Update: the motion passed unanimously at today’s second reading, without a single objection. Oxford University will have a Student Parents and Carers Officer! 

Oxford could do so much more to help student parents – and something really important is being proposed today at OUSU Council which would be a big step in the right direction. The plan is to create a Student Parents and Carers Officer – a part-time position with responsibility for helping parents and carers meet the particular challenges they face in university life. The motion is below. We’re hoping it will pass without any difficulty; still, it might be worth coming along to St John’s auditorium at 5.30 to support and vote for the motion. The details of the position are still be worked out, but this could be a significant step towards making Oxford a fairer place for all.

Introduction of a Student Parent and Carers Officer

Council Notes:

  1. There are at least 200 student members [a conservative estimate] who are student parents or carers.
  2. The current responsibility for student parents and carers lies with the Vice-President (Women).
  1. The NUS has put out two reports on student parents and carers, Meet the Parents (2009) and Learning with Care (2012), which make a number of recommendations for Universities and Student Unions.
  2. Many other Student Unions have representative positions for student parents and carers.

Council Believes:

  1. Student parents and carers face particular and specific challenges, including but not limited to sourcing and funding childcare and integrating into student communities.
  2. The challenges that student parents and carers face are important, and the fact that OUSU is working to address them should not depend on the year-to-year priorities of the Vice-President (Women).
  1. It is inappropriate that no student parents and carers who are not women are currently able to run for the position that has responsibility for working for student parents and carers.
  1. OUSU should take steps to address some of the recommendations made in Meet the Parents and Learning with Care, including but not limited to: ‘Students’ unions and institutions should work together to enable student carers to participate in student life to as great an extent as they wish.’ (Learning with Care) ‘Students’ unions should consider the ways in which student parents’ interests can be represented through their democratic systems, given the restraints on their time.’ (Meet the Parents)
  2. Introducing a new Part Time Officer role, the Student Parents and Carers Officer, would solve the problems discussed in Believes 2. and 3. and would increase OUSU’s ability to tackle the challenges discussed in Believes 1. and the recommendations discussed in Believes 4.

    Council Resolves:

    1. To introduce a new Part Time Officer role, the Student Parents and Carers Officer, by making the following alterations to the General regulations […]
    2. To note and accept the proposed remit for this role (Appendix 1).
    1. To mandate the Vice-Presidents (Women) and (Graduates) to work closely with the new Student Parents and Carers Officer to refine the remit of the role, anticipating that this role may require more support than others, and report to Council on this progress in Trinity Term 2015.


      Appendix 1

      Officer Remit: Student Parents and Carers Officer

      To represent the interests of student parents and students with other caring responsibilities to the OUSU Executive and University, particularly working with the Mature Students Officer and the Graduate Women’s Officer.

      Lobby for the interests of student parents and students with other caring responsibilities in all areas of the student experience including (but not limited to) access, academic affairs and welfare.

      Liaise with the University Childcare Services Department and Equality and Diversity Unit on a regular basis.

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.