Lois McLatchie is a legal analyst for ADF International, a faith-based legal advocacy organisation in Geneva.
Academic freedom means the right to search for truth and to publish and teach what one holds to be true.
So said Albert Einstein. But it’s unlikely he’d find many friends in the universities of today. According to a recent poll published by human rights organization ADF International (UK), two in five students across the UK self-censor on campus because they’re afraid of how their lecturers will view them. Half stay quiet in fear of judgement from their peers. Over a third confess that they hide their opinions in case of hurting their career prospects. Woe betide those who think outside the box. Einstein’s truth-searchers are out in the cold.
Nobody knows this better than Julia Rynkiewicz. The twenty-four year old student midwife faced suspension and a fitness-to-practise hearing earlier this year. Her education was disrupted. She faced months of stress and anxiety. Her crime? Julia was president of the Nottingham Students for Life Society. She held an opinion at university. She thought that was what she was there for.
Julia’s story may be shocking, but it won’t surprise a number of pro-life student groups on campus – that is, if they are actually allowed on campus. In June 2019, the same Nottingham society was denied affiliation – and therefore access to venues and funding – because their views were different to that of the Students’ Union. The threat of legal action saw this decision overturned. But the story was not an isolated one.
The pro-life society at Strathclyde University saw a ban lifted on their affiliation last year, but President Catherine Dheigan said that their group were made to feel “unwelcome”, “intimidated” and “bullied” by representatives of the Students Association at the Freshers’ Fair. They were told that if they said they were pro-life, they would be in violation of the Students Association’s policy.
Pro-life societies at Glasgow and Aberdeen Universities also faced the freeze. The Aberdeen Life Ethics Society even faced investigation after complaints that their event, ““Does Abortion Violate Human Rights?”, violated the university’s “safe space” policy. The complaints were ultimately dismissed.
Discussion and opinion, it seems, are privileges afforded only to students already in agreement. To be clear, nobody is asking that the student union idealists be quiet. Quite the opposite. A university flourishes through lively engagement.
But if they are to hold pro-choice positions, they should be willing to debate them. They should be open to challenge. Students should be allowed to grow. And that means giving space, platforms and the chance to engage on equal terms to those with whom they disagree. They might be wrong; they might be right.
But debate itself is a dying art. Last month, Ann Furedi – the former CEO of abortion provider BPAS – noted regretfully on Twitter that she would be debating at Queen’s University Belfast, “replacing a pro-choice speaker who dropped out in acknowledge of some view that anti-choice speakers should not be given a platform. As an abortion provider, can I say this is not good. We need to challenge, debate & convince – not ignore those against us. [sic].”
This instance mirrors an incident at Christ Church College at Oxford University in 2014, which caved to pressure and cancelled a debate with media personalities Tim Stanley and Brendan O’Neil on the motion ‘This House Believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All’. A protest group of around 300 members had appeared on Facebook that promised to “take along some non-destructive but oh so disruptive instruments to help demonstrate to the anti-choicers just what we think of their ‘debate’.”
Of course, the cancel culture at universities engulfs more than the abortion issue. “Deplatforming” has joined the common student lexicon in recent years. Julie Bindel was unceremoniously “banned” from speaking on campus at Manchester University after the Students’ Union took issue with her views on biological sex. Cambridge University rescinded its offer of a visiting fellowship to Jordan Peterson, the well-known “Professor against political correctness”, owing to student pressure.
Earlier this year, the de-platforming became more notably centralist. The UNWomen Society at Oxford University abruptly disinvited Amber Rudd at 30 minutes notice, tweeting ‘We are deeply sorry for all and any hurt caused to our members and other wom*n and non-binary people in Oxford over this event’.
Today, it’s pro-lifers bearing the brunt. Who knows what else might be thrown out with this kind of censorship tomorrow. Throughout history, unpopular ideas have been creating the world we know. William Wilberforce spent his life convincing British comrades that slavery might be wrong. The Edinburgh Seven had to convince the entire nation that women should be allowed to attend university. The pioneers of social advancement have always been underdogs. The end of challenge is the end of progress.