Is There Free Speech on the UK University Campus?
Pro-life students share their experiences of ‘cancel culture.’
LONDON — In the fall of 2019, an undergraduate student in a midwifery program at a British university was barred from placement in a hospital. The reason? Her pro-life beliefs.
“It was clearly linked to my involvement in the pro-life movement. I was so confused by how they were able to use that against me,” Julia Rynkiewicz told the Register this month.
The 24-year-old student at the University of Nottingham was blocked from entering her midwifery program’s hospital placement phase after the university learned of her pro-life beliefs and that she was prominent in the university’s pro-life student group, Nottingham Students for Life (NSFL).
“When I heard that I had been suspended from my placements — you have to do something quite bad to be suspended immediately,” she said, “and I couldn't work out what I had done to justify such a response!” She went on to discuss the four-month-long investigation that followed, which she described as “very stressful.”
Eventually, in January 2020, the decision to suspend her was overturned by the university. Thereafter, Rynkiewicz was allowed to continue as a midwife student; but the investigation and placement ban set her studies back a whole year.
Later, in November 2020, Rynkiewicz was awarded a financial settlement and an official apology from the university for the treatment she had received. A spokesperson for the University of Nottingham said: “While all universities take fitness-to-practice considerations extremely seriously, the university has offered an apology and settlement to Ms. Rynkiewicz and is considering how we might approach such cases differently in future.”
However, the same spokesperson went on to state: “The university and Students’ Union supports the rights of all students to bodily autonomy and access to safe, legal abortion services, which is the position in law.” The spokesperson added, “Universities should be spaces to debate, discuss and disagree points of view, and with more than 200 student societies, covering the full range of beliefs and perspectives, we are confident this is the case at Nottingham.”
Established this February, the Free Speech Union (FSU) is a United Kingdom-based organization that advocates for freedom of speech. Toby Young, general secretary of FSU, told the Register this month: “The free-speech crisis at Britain’s universities is very real.” In the past year, he says, the FSU has received 100-plus requests for help from students and academics who are being subjected to a disciplinary process at their universities for saying something lawful that other members of their university have complained about. He points to the findings from 2017, when Britain’s largest academic trade union commissioned research on the subject of freedom of speech at universities. He says this research concluded that “free speech was less well protected in Britain’s universities than it is in every any other country in the European Union bar one.” Since then, he added, “things have got worse by an order of magnitude."
Given the treatment of Rynkiewicz, and other students who hold unfashionable beliefs, how free are British universities when it comes to freedom of expression for the students who study there?
Grace Deignan is president of Glasgow University’s Students for Life. She says she could not “have imagined the difficulties” trying to start a pro-life group at Glasgow University, but, “upon submitting our affiliation form to the university, we were told we couldn’t become a group on campus because the university didn’t take a stance on abortion. But after discovering there were already three pro-abortion societies active on campus, we knew we were being silenced.” So she wrote back to the student body stating that she and the others in Students for Life were “a group of students who deserved representation like any other group on campus.” Yet, she says, “time and time again, we had staff ignoring us until we had to physically pursue any leads we could on campus to get anyone to respond to us.”
Ironically, Deignan decided to attend Glasgow University because, it “boasted,” she says, “an inclusive, friendly environment for all students.” The experience of trying to do so, however, left her feeling “completely betrayed by how unprofessional and unpleasant the study body were to students who were asking to form a group about promoting the dignity of all human beings.”
Georgia Clarke, co-president of Oxford Students for Life (OSFL) from 2016 to 2017, recalls that during her time at Oxford University, “OSFL members were told repeatedly that abortion was not up for debate, ‘because women’s rights were not up for debate.’” As a result, OSFL was labeled as “inherently sexist and religiously extremist.” It was hard for OSFL to book events and the group was even asked to pay for its own security, “something” she says “other more controversial societies were not asked to provide.” Inevitably, OSFL events met with loud protests. “Police were called to one event because one of the protesters became aggressive with a security guard,” she recounted. With such a closing down of debate among students, Clarke wonders how these same students “will ever learn to engage, persuade, negotiate or even listen in the real world.”
Vincent Elvin is a member of Oxford Students for Life (OSFL). He cites a specific example of the suppression of debate. The OSFL had hoped to facilitate a Zoom event with pro-life speakers, but with the floor open to anyone, whether they supported, questioned or were critical of the pro-life view. The group advertised the event via various student Facebook groups, including that of his college’s Junior Common Room (JCR). But within a few hours, the advertisement was removed by the JCR president with the following explanation: “The comments underneath it have raised welfare concerns for a lot of people … [in accordance with our guidelines,] posts which include sexism are not to be tolerated.”
Baffled by this, Elvin points out there was nothing in the Facebook event advertising that actually gave an opinion on abortion. “When I asked to see the guidelines (which were not publicly available), I could not find where my post lay at fault,” he says. “I was further informed that the JCR president was compelled to take it down not only because of ‘welfare concerns’ for the students, but because the post displayed ‘sexism.’ The only possible interpretation is that the words ‘pro-life’ were considered sexist or ‘triggering’ by the college’s JCR.”
Despite subsequently formulating a new post with a “trigger warning” approved by the president, the second version of the advertisement was again removed by the same president only 30 minutes later with the following message: “To ensure the Facebook page does not become a toxic environment for any members of [the college] the admin are removing your post.”
At this point, OSFL took the matter to the dean, citing the college’s freedom of speech policy, which makes clear that students should expect to be exposed to views with which they disagree, and also noting the Education Act 1996 and the Equalities Act 2010, both of which guarantee the right of freedom of speech. The dean passed the matter to the principal (the head official, above the dean). Elvin says, “At the next meeting of the Governing Body the matter was decided in our favor, and the de facto ‘advertising ban’ against the society was lifted.”
Although on this occasion, the Oxford pro-life students were vindicated, Elvin feels they also were given a message: “While our right to have a voice has been recognized by higher levels of university governance, our peers and student representatives will do all they can to suppress and eliminate pro-life views.”
Peri Dalkic, president of the Aberdeen Life Ethics Society (ALES) at Aberdeen University, has a similar depressing tale to tell. “When news spread that ALES had been affiliated [to the student body], our opponents began to use bullying tactics to intimidate us to be quiet about our beliefs.” She tells of how this bullying of its members soon got worse. “On a Facebook page, a student posted that he was going to assault members of ALES. Another stated on the same page that all the girls in ALES were ‘fat mutants,’ which received many ‘likes.’ Following some of our on-campus activism, a picture was posted to the ALES Facebook page of myself and two fellow committee members outside the library. On this, one student commented, ‘We didn’t know you were there, else you’d be covered in milkshakes.’” She goes on to say that this ongoing intimidation was not confined to the virtual world. “Whilst a few other members and I were handing out pro-life literature on campus, a male student filmed us while jeering and laughing in an intimidating manner. We also had condoms thrown at us.” All these incidents were reported to the university, but she says little was done about it, with some of her complaints “receiving absolutely no response, and all resulted in no consequences for the students involved.”
“Of all places, university is where students should be free to debate and explore ideas — especially those with which they disagree,” said Ryan Christopher, director of ADF International (UK). His organization has been assisting many of these student groups and individual students at British universities in what has become an increasingly hostile environment for those with pro-life views.
While Christopher is “pleased” with the settlement and apology from Nottingham University given to Julia Rynkiewicz, polling carried out recently for ADF International (UK) shows that Julia’s treatment is not an isolated incident. From this, he concludes that a “discriminatory silencing of those who hold similar views is likely to happen again: 1 in 3 students fear that their [pro-life] views would be considered ‘unacceptable.’” He went on to add: “Today’s censorial culture on campus can easily become ‘cancel culture’ in the public square.”