Oxford Students for Life

Promoting a culture of life in the University and beyond

Tag: prolife

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 look back at one of the biggest pro-life moments this year

Earlier this year, a slew of undercover videos showing Planned Parenthood employees discussing the sale of fetal tissue made for a PR nightmare for the largest abortion provider in the United States. Conducted by a group called the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), the undercover investigation suggested that Planned Parenthood had illegally profited from the sale of fetal body parts, and that abortion providers may even be modifying abortion procedures in order to obtain desirable tissue.

The videos added fuel to the raging debate in the U.S. over abortion. They made people ask whether Planned Parenthood, which bills itself as a non-profit providing millions of women access to affordable health care, deserves the half a billion dollars it receives from the federal government each year, in addition to state funding.

Staunch Planned Parenthood supporters decried the undercover investigation, arguing that the videos were selectively edited (one investigation alleged they were, while two others showed they weren’t); that fetal tissue is essential to medical advances (it’s rarely used); and that Planned Parenthood is a critical health care provider for women (more on this later).

It wasn’t the first time that undercover videos have suggested wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood, including covering up child sex trafficking and accepting donations earmarked to abort racial minorities. Previously, Planned Parenthood brushed off such scandals, firing implicated employees but otherwise continuing business as usual. Mainstream media ignored the stories, few people outside the pro-life movement reacted, and calls for investigations fizzled.

But something was different this time: CMP’s videos struck a nerve. While denying any wrongdoing, Planned Parenthood hired a fancy PR firm to do damage control, even pretending at one point that its website had been hacked in order to garner donations. Early in the scandal, president Cecile Richards apologized for one of her employees’ callousness of tone as she discussed fetal dismemberment while munching on a salad and sipping wine – although since then, Richards has gone on the offensive, calling for supporters to rally around the organization.

Planned Parenthood had good reason to be worried. Pro-lifers were galvanized: people came out of the woodwork to participate in nationwide protests and to become more active in the pro-life movement, and six states  discontinued funding for Planned Parenthood. The U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure defunding the organization, though it was later defeated in the Senate. Even members of the European Union Parliament demanded investigations and defunding of the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

More interesting, however, was that despite media bias, even some who identify as pro-choice became uneasy and reconsidered their stance on abortion, as one writer describes:For those of us who are pro-choice, the Planned Parenthood videos are a game changer.” Others worry that Planned Parenthood’s alleged modification of abortion procedures to obtain intact fetal parts puts women at risk.

Further, Planned Parenthood’s approval rating  dropped among those who have seen the videos, continuing a downward trend in approval, from 81 percent in 1993 to 59 percent in 2015.  

Planned Parenthood and its supporters have tried to deflect the controversy over abortion by arguing that defunding the organization would leave millions of women without access to affordable health care, including well-woman exams, mammograms, and STD testing, as well as contraception. For instance, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) asserted that Planned Parenthood is the sole source of health care for one-third of U.S. women – 36 to 39 million individuals. But this is patently false; only 2.7 million women and men visit the organization every year. Planned Parenthood had also claimed to provide mammograms and that abortions comprised only a small percentage of their services. When Cecile Richards was called to testify under oath before Congress, however, she admitted that Planned Parenthood does not provide mammograms but only referrals, and that abortions account for 86% of revenue.

As pro-life advocates and community health experts have pointed out, for every Planned Parenthood facility there are a dozen community health centers that provide all the same services, including contraception, but do not perform abortions. These federally funded health centers serve as a one-stop shop for 23 million women, (and men, and children) for comprehensive health care, not just reproductive issues. There’s even a new interactive map of all the places that women can find affordable health care, and it includes providers one wouldn’t initially think of, such as schools and homeless shelters. Planned Parenthood has framed the discussion in such a way that support for defunding the organization pits one against women’s health, yet clearly, it’s possible to provide women with quality health care without America’s largest abortion provider. Accordingly, the House’s bill defunding Planned Parenthood contained a provision redirecting funding to community health centers.

Planned Parenthood ended up announcing that it will no longer accept any kind of reimbursement for fetal tissue. One might be cynical and say that this allows the organization to continue to perform abortions while putting to rest the question of whether it made money from selling fetal parts. But the reaction from people who were upset by the sale of fetal body parts, including many of those who were pro-choice, underscores the recognition, implicit or explicit, of the humanity of the fetus. After all, despite Planned Parenthood’s attempts to dehumanize the unborn person, the use of fetal parts for human research affirms the fact that the fetus is not a nebulous blob of tissue, but a member of the human species.

Planned Parenthood has big money, passionate supporters, and political clout, often making it impervious to oversight. But the organization’s response to the scandal – the apology for tone and its ceasing of taking any kind of reimbursement for fetal tissue – indicates wariness on its part that the general public is growing increasingly skeptical that Planned Parenthood deserves their trust.


Audra Nakas was a visiting student at Christ Church in Hilary 2013. She is a fellow with Ethika Politika.