Oxford Students for Life

Promoting a culture of life in the University and beyond

Tag: politics

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]

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.”

Pro-Life and Socialist

This article begins our first series of the new year, “Pro-Life and Political”, in which several writers will explain how their different political opinions shape their pro-life views. 

When I was asked to contribute a piece to this blog on being pro-life and socialist, I hesitated a little. Not because I didn’t like the idea of writing for Oxford Students for Life, quite the contrary! No, I hesitated because I have never associated my pro-life stance as being in any way linked to my self-proclaimed political position as a socialist. My anti-abortion thinking goes much more naturally with my faith as a Christian.

Some weeks later, I can sort of see why I was asked to bring these two sides together in a blog post.

Being pro-life is typically associated with right-wing, conservative thinking. That means politicians in the United States that go on about how everyone should have the right to have their own gun are often the same people that talk about the right an unborn foetus has to life.

Strange, really.

The right-wing of the political spectrum is usually the side that prizes individualism, choice, and self-determination. It’s typically the left end of the spectrum, where socialist ideologies sit, that presses for equality, looking after the most vulnerable in society, and giving a voice to the voiceless.

If we think about it, being pro-life actually fits much more comfortably into the socialist end of the political spectrum than it does into the right wing. That’s probably why 46% of Labour supporters in the UK, in comparison with 40% of Conservative voters (and 38% of UKIP voters), think the unborn child ought to have some sort of “legal protection of its own”, according to a recent poll.

Why do I think that “pro-life” is the right-shaped piece to fit in the socialist jigsaw puzzle?

It goes hand-in-hand with equality.

Upholding the value of human life is in no way at odds with advocating equality. In fact, the two are rather comfortable bedfellows. The thinking which governs calls for equality is that each and every person is of equal value and should be treated as so, regardless of their race, gender, religion and so on. This is the same thinking which is behind those that back the foetus’ right to life: every person should be treated with dignity, respect and with value.

After all, this is a human right. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights underscores the ‘recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family’ as ‘the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’.

Article 3 of this same document – the foundation of international human rights law – decrees: ‘Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.’ Another clause reads: ‘Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law.’ These are the ground rules that govern the socialist rhetoric, which emphasises social solidarity and justice for all.

So why do people tend to disregard the unborn infant’s ‘inherent dignity’ as ‘a member of the human family’ and its ‘right to life, liberty and security of person’, as well as its ‘right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law’? Why, especially, should the school of thought that usually shouts the loudest for these rights for all people, suddenly abandon this thinking when it comes to the topic of abortion – shouting instead for the woman’s right to “choose” (ignoring the child’s right to live) and her right to go about her life without “the burden” of a baby?

It may not seem evident at first but in addition to being incompatible with the full recognition of human rights, abortion also has telling repercussions on the position of women in society.

The rhetoric of the self-styled ‘pro-choice’ camp fixates more than anything else on a woman having the right to choose whether or not she wants to have an abortion. But is it really a choice for that many women? Some of the top reasons that come up as having driven women to go through an abortion include fear that pregnancy and rearing a child will inhibit their career goals and the fear of not having enough finances to support a child.

I think we should be concerned about these concerns. Or what do you think: should we not be worried when women feel that the only way that they can get ahead in life and succeed in their careers is by ending their own children’s lives? The fact that so many women feel they must stop the pulse of the very lives breathing inside them shows that we have a long way to go in making women feel equal to men. For why should a woman’s unique and immensurable capacity to bring life into the world be something that she becomes ashamed of? Why should a child change from being a “gift” to being a “burden”?

And does it not say something about the inequality of our society when a mother feels that it is out of her reach to provide the monetary means for her child to live in this world?

Being pro-life and socialist actually shouldn’t be seen as a paradox at all. Being a socialist means desiring equality for all, looking out for the needs of the most vulnerable, and giving voice to the voiceless. Being pro-life means counting the unborn child as worthy of having rights – and that to life is the most important of them all. Being pro-life also signals a grasp of the reality that the foetus is a mute and defenceless human being who needs our voices and our law to protect it.

Ruth Akinradewo is a student at the University of Oxford and posts on her own blog, ‘The Change Channel’