Police break up Oxford SU pro-choice protest

Demonstrators stopped the start of the OSFL talk for almost an hour through chants and heckling

St John's College. Kathryn Yengel.

Oxford SU has been accused of attacking students’ freedom of speech after demonstrators disrupted a talk held by controversial group Oxford Students For Life (OSFL) at St John’s
on Wednesday.

Police were called to escort pro-choice campaigners from the college after they prevented the start of the OSFL talk for almost an hour through chants and heckling. This followed earlier failed attempts by private security and college porters to move the event into another room.

The move has sparked accusations from demonstrators led by Oxford SU’s WomCam that St John’s actions were “a clear attempt to intimidate protesters” who had entered the
event “peacefully”.

In a statement they insisted they were “not protesting OSFL or their speakers’ right to free speech” but were instead “demonstrating that the speakers’ views deny millions of people bodily autonomy, that subject them to forced pregnancy, resulting in cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, and sometimes death”.

OSFL members rejected this account however, describing the protest as “a deliberate attempt to shut down discussion and dialogue through harassment and bullying”. Allegedly, pro-choice campaigners chanted from a prepared ‘chant sheet’ that included the lines “pro-
life, that’s a lie, you don’t care if women die”.

The heckling started almost immediately after the first speaker, Irish Times correspondent Breda O’Brien, began to talk. Around 15 students stood and began to chant continuously until O’Brien was forced to stop.

OSFL co-president Anna Branford said: “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 protestors. This continued for approximately 40 minutes: protesters shouted, jeered, stood in front of the projector and chanted.”

Matthew Kirtley, a student who attended the talk, told Cherwell: “The protesters banged on windows, placed themselves in front of the projector, and impeded access by guests to enter and leave the event by both taking up space and by obstructing the entrances and exits.

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“They also strongly intimidated many people, who chose to leave rather than be subjected to some very mean-spirited chants.

Any attempt to claim or imply that this protest was peaceful is false. It was predicated upon intimidation and obstruction.”

In a statement provided to Cherwell, WomCam clarifed their position. They said: “Bodily autonomy is not up for debate; it is not a question of opinion. Access to healthcare is a basic human right.

“We will continue fighting until all people have access to free, safe and legal abortion in Ireland, and everywhere.”

In a statement published in response to the comments made by Oxford SU, OSFL said: “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 added that they had “received legal advice that WomCam were breaking the law precisely because they were denying our freedom of speech.”

The furore comes as Ireland looks ahead to a national referendum on the legalisation of abortion that is set to take place next year.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced the poll in September, stating that Irish citizens would
be given the chance to vote on the abolition of the eighth amendment to the constitution, which gives a fetus the legal rights of a citizen even in early pregnancy.

Thousands of Irish women every year travel to the United Kingdom in order to escape some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. In 2016 the UN ruled that Irish abortion law subjugated women to “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment”.

Revd. Professor William Whythe insisted that St John’s was “committed to protecting the freedom of speech at meetings within the College and the freedom to make
peaceful protest”.

He added: “neither speakers nor listeners should have any reasonable grounds to feel intimidated or censored”.

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In a statement Thames Valley Police told Cherwell: “Thames Valley Police was called at 8.22pm last night… about a protest at St John’s College, St Giles, Oxford.

Further investigation found that the protest was planned and arranged with the university. At 9.03pm all protesters had left the area.”

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