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Is this the start of a free speech fightback on campus?


IN a speech last week for the launch of the Theos report about faith on campus, the chairman of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, David Isaac, criticised the student unions who had tried to silence Christian and pro-life societies. He also asserted that ‘universities must not allow students to block pro-life or Christian societies’. It was a welcome intervention.

Last year Life, a pro-life group, was barred from having stalls at three different university freshers’ fairs, and in 2017 an Oxford college banned the Christian Union from its student fair, claiming that it would be ‘alienating’ for students of other religions. 

That universities should be bastions of debate and defenders of expression you might think was self-evident. Yet it needed this restatement by Mr Isaac. His emphasis that the bans were inconsistent with guidance from the European Human Rights Commission was also significant. His explanation or interpretation that ‘we are living in an age of hypersensitivity where it is increasingly easier for people to feel offended – or others to be worried about protecting minority groups’ was, however, incomplete. 

Judging by the aggressive attitudes of the students involved, the bans look less to be the result of colleges’ ‘hypersensitivity’ or fears of upsetting anyone, and more of their bowing to the bullying of student bodies who wished to censor the views they don’t like, not least conscience-based views on abortion. (It is good to see that in Aberdeen one such group has finally won its right of affiliation to the students’ union.)

The student bodies that held sway in the cases Mr Isaac referred to had constructed their own Christian/pro-life ‘straw man’ – one that was bigoted, racist, homophobic, transphobic and, of course, ‘anti-choice’ – exactly so they could justify such exclusions in the name of ‘inclusion’, to cite, spuriously, the potential harm caused by the dissemination of said straw man’s dangerous opinions.

It is clear, given the ‘permissions’ granted to the expression of anti-Israel views in a number of British universities, regardless of the potential harm to or sensitivities of Jewish students, that this ‘age of hypersensitivity’ explanation extends only to the sensitivities of some self-declared victim groups and not to other real ones.

Mr Isaac’s next step must be to address this wider antagonism towards pro-life and traditional Christian and Jewish beliefs, and the attempts to censor them. It goes much wider than the university campus as evidenced here, here and here, taking even the form of sanctioned censorship that has Christians reported for mentioning their beliefs in the workplace in an effort to help needy individuals.

Britain’s first universities were Christian creations, making it ever more ironic that it is here, in the cradle of modern democracy they in part gave rise to, that we are experiencing such a repression of conscience and speech. Let us hope that Mr Isaac’s intervention will mark the resurrection of both.

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Ann Farmer
Ann Farmer
Ann Farmer is the author of By Their Fruits: Eugenics, Population Control, and the Abortion Movement (Catholic University of America, 2008).

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