A Bill to protect freedom of speech in universities has passed all stages in the House of Commons and will now move onto the House of Lords, signalling good news for pro-life students.
Yesterday, the Department for Education’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, launched in January 2021, completed Report Stage and Third Reading without a vote.The Bill imposes a duty on universities to secure freedom of speech within the law for staff, students and visiting speakers.
During the debate, Sir Edward Leigh MP, drew attention to the plight of pro-life students in particular, saying:
“The Alliance of Pro-Life Students says that more than 70% of pro-life students face situations in seminars or lectures where they feel unable to speak openly, and one in three students surveyed had seen events cancelled due to the no-platforming of pro-life students and speakers.”
He asked the Minister for Higher Education, Michelle Donelan whether those with pro-life views have a “right to be heard in our universities?”
The Minister answered him saying, “of course, they deserve and have a right to be able to air their views and debate that subject.”
DUP MP, Jim Shannon similarly drew attention to the discrimination against pro-life students wanting to ensure that the Bill would protect their freedom of speech.
Miriam Cates MP agreed saying: “I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman [Jim Shannon]. The belief that human life starts at conception is a scientifically valid belief, and one that I hold myself. Students and staff should absolutely be protected in reflecting that view.”
The Bill was launched against the background of a number of public figures from across the political spectrum being ‘no-platformed’ (banned from speaking) at universities in Britain including, Peter Hitchens, Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell.
Pro-life students and speakers in particular have faced numerous attempts to shut them down in recent years.
In what has become a pattern at universities across the UK, many pro-life groups have been hindered in their ability to speak freely and enjoy the same benefits as other student societies.
In the last four years, student representative bodies at Aberdeen University, Glasgow University, Nottingham University and Strathclyde University have all tried to prevent student pro-life groups from being affiliated with their university and benefiting from the same privileges available to any other student group. In each of these cases, the student unions had to reverse their decision after the groups threatened legal proceedings against them. Students at Birmingham University also had significant difficulty becoming affiliated with the university but eventually won amidst significant opposition.
In 2019, in the first case of its kind, a midwifery student at Nottingham University was suspended and faced possible expulsion from her course after a lecturer raised concerns about her role in the University’s pro-life group. Only after beginning legal action was the University’s decision overturned. Towards the end of 2020, this incident was closed after the university extended an apology to the student and offered compensation for her unjust suspension.
Right To Life UK spokesperson Catherine Robinson said: “The important point about freedom of speech in this regard is that we have something worth saying. The pro-life view shouldn’t be shut down just because it happens to depart from prevailing orthodoxies. When the freedom of speech of pro-lifers is prevented, it is not primarily the speakers who lose out, but those who are deprived of hearing a pro-life point of view on life issues.”.
“Pro-lifers recognise the inherent worth and dignity of mothers and babies. Pro-lifers ultimately offer a hopeful message, and not the despair that advocates of abortion promote. The pro-life view needs to be heard and hopefully this Bill will ensure that students who wish to discuss it are not prevented from doing so.”