Scottish universities seek to limit student pro-life groups

An unborn baby at 20 weeks. Credit: Steve via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
An unborn baby at 20 weeks. Credit: Steve via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

.- Student associations at both the University of Aberdeen and the University of Glasgow have recently blocked pro-life student groups from affiliating, limiting their access to funds and venues.

The Herald, a Glaswegian daily, reported Nov. 26 that the Aberdeen University Students' Association prevented the affiliation of the Aberdeen Life Ethics Society, citing its own pro-choice policy.

The week prior, it was found that Glasgow University's Students' Representative Council had barred affiliation from Glasgow Students for Life.

In October, the University of Strathclyde (in Glasgow) lifted a similar ban on pro-life groups, following legal pressure. Strathclyde Sudents for Life argued that the student associaton's no platforming policy violated the Equality Act 2010 “by directly discriminating against a group of students based on their beliefs.”

The Aberdeen Life Ethics Society had announced the rejection of its application Oct. 19, saying, “We were rejected because the Student Council passed a policy in November 2017 declaring AUSA to be 'pro-choice' and pledging to 'no-platform' any society that opposes abortion. Since our proposed society is unashamedly pro-life, we have been banned from affiliating.”

The pro-life group said that the pro-choice policy is “being used as political cover to ban student speech on campus, it also treats the student body as undivided on the issue of abortion.”

“Censorship is a growing epidemic on many university campuses in this country, and AUSA has now chosen to be the latest in a long line of students' associations which selectively repress the freedom of speech of certain students and societies,” Aberdeen Life Ethics Society wrote on its Facebook page. “AUSA's willingness to censor dissenting speech, regardless of the fact that such speech is protected by UK and EU laws, should be chilling to any fair-minded student who believes that the free exchange of ideas is vital to a university community.”

The pro-lifers noted that Ausa “prides itself on being radically tolerant, but its decision to block the formation of a minority-view society only serves to illuminate the lopsided nature of how tolerance is actually practised on our campus … for a students' association which touts its supposed liberality, this outcome is an illiberal travesty.”

Ausa has cited its pro-choice policy, adopted in November 2017, as the basis for its decision. The policy says, in part, that “Ausa should oppose the unreasonable display of pro-life material within campus and at Ausa events.”

Lawson Ogubie, Ausa president, said that “students are encouraged to challenge or submit policy changes as is their democratic right as members of our students’ association.”

The SRC at Glasgow University made a similar decision. SRC president Lauren McDougall told the Herald that the council views affiliation “as a form of endorsement … Given the SRC’s campaigning on a number of related social issues over the years, including support for the recent Repeal the 8th campaign in Ireland, it would be contrary to our ethos to endorse a society which calls for limited rights for women.”

Glasgow Students for Life has called the decision “an assault on freedom of speech” and said the university “is legally obliged to foster an environment of academic freedom.”

The joint committee on human rights of the UK parliament has noted troubling barriers to free speech at the nation's universities.

In a March report, the committee said that “whilst the original intention behind safe space policies may have been to ensure that minority or vulnerable groups can feel secure, in practice the concept of safe spaces has proved problematic, often marginalising the views of minority groups.”

“Minority groups or individuals holding unpopular opinions which are within the law should not be shut down nor be subject to undue additional scrutiny by student unions or universities,” the committee continued.

It added that “unless it is clearly understood that those exercising their rights to free speech within the law will not be shut down, there will be no incentive for their opponents to engage them in the debate and challenge needed to bring mutual understanding and maybe even to change attitudes.”

The committee's point was echoed in a Nov. 23 post at The Spectator by Stephen Daisley, an alumnus of Glasgow University.

He called barring Glasgow Students for Life “an act of pettiness — and cowardice. Abortion advocates are not keen on debate because abortion is a practice that relies on hushed tones and closed doors. ‘Abortifacient’ and ‘dilatation and evacuation’ are not-nice terms for not-nice procedures.”

“What Glasgow University’s ethos-enforcers fear is not criticism of abortion by Glasgow Students for Life but the defence of abortion they would have to mount in response. Keep out the pro-lifers and your viewpoint enjoys a monopoly; let them in and you’ve got a dialogue on your hands,” Daisley wrote.

Tags: Abortion, Scotland, Free Speech, Freedom of speech, No platforming, Higher education, University of Aberdeen