A pro-life group has attacked Oxford Student Union for giving “disingenuous” testimony to a government inquiry.
Oxford SU’s evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ investigation into free speech at universities was published earlier this week.
Their testimony focused on the government’s Prevent strategy and its allegedly negative impact on the free expression of BME students at Oxford. However, it failed to mention any of the accusations of free speech suppression against the student union.
Oxford Students for Life (OSFL) was critical of the focus of their report, which they saw as an attempt to divert away from the SU’s own record on free speech.
This came under recent scrutiny after the Oxford SU Women’s Campaign protested an ‘Abortion in Ireland’ event organised by OSFL.
The SU-organised protesters chanted inside the St John’s venue for almost an hour, making it impossible for the speakers to continue until the protesters were removed by police.
Oxford SU’s evidence failed to mention this incident, or any other accusations of free speech suppression against the student union.
OSFL told Cherwell: “We find it somewhat disingenuous that Oxford SU’s submission to the inquiry was devoid of any reference to no-platforming and other attempts to curtail freedom of speech in the university.
“The SU is right to interrogate the government’s position on freedom of speech: the inquiry invites them to do precisely that.
“But an inquiry on freedom of speech, especially in the context of universities with specific reference to student unions surely ought to invite the SU to reflect on their own role and what responsibility they may have for the stifling on free speech.”
Pointing out that other student unions had responded to criticisms of their free speech policies, OSFL concluded: “Oxford SU are very keen to point out the alleged incoherence of government policy, whilst appearing unaware of their own incoherence.”
Instead of responding to the criticisms against them, the SU’s evidence focused on an in investigation by Cherwell last year which detailed how Prevent was supposedly being used improperly against BME students.
This was in addition to a survey carried out by Oxford SU over the summer of 2017, which demonstrated “that a sizeable proportion of students, which comprised BME students here, were particularly uncomfortable and were unable to participate fully in university life, such as in hosting and organising student-run events.”
The full data from this survey was redacted to ensure individual students could not be identified.
The evidence submitted by OSFL to the enquiry, meanwhile, focused exclusively on Oxford SU WomCam’s protest last term.
An Oxford SU spokesperson told Cherwell: “Oxford SU submitted evidence to the Universities Freedom of Speech enquiry which is being run by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, with MPs and Lords. We think it is important that the freedoms of students and staff are protected and secured on campus.
“Oxford SU believes that peaceful protest has played a major role in bring about social and political changes and is reviewing its advice to campaign groups to support them to peacefully protest.”
Further events in Oxford attracted attention and featured in several other pieces of written evidence to the government committee.
Michael Wee, an education officer at a Catholic research institute in bioethics, submitted eye-witness evidence on the OSFL event disrupted by WomCam protestors.
The Alliance of Pro-Life Students (APS) also mentioned the event, describing it as a “key incident of the suppression of freedom of speech”. They also detailed the cancellation of a OSFL-organised debate between two journalists by Christ Church, due to the college’s fears that it would attract a large protest.
However, last week the APS redacted its claim that Cambridge SU’s Women’s Officer, Lola Olufemi, infringed upon their freedom of speech by refusing to meet with members of Cambridge Students for Life.
Josephine Jackson, an Oxford student who graduated in 2016 and former OSFL president, referenced other occasions where she believed the SU impacted on free speech during her time at Oxford.
These include an occasion in October 2014 where OSFL were asked to leave a freshers fair where they were running a stall.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights launched the inquiry to explore whether freedom of expression was being suppressed at universities and student unions and how best to deal with it.
It encouraged individuals and organisations to submit either written or oral evidence for their consideration.
The inquiry comes as the Office for Students (OfS) prepares to take on regulatory responsibility for the sector this April, with a duty to promote free speech at universities.