In order to understand what pro-lifers on college campuses are up against, I recommend reading this piece by Oxford student Dan Hitchens, “Pro-lifers: the student censor’s favourite target.”
Of course, Hitchens resides in the UK. But that’s even more reason for all of us to wake up and pay attention. As we know by now, illiberal ideas tend to take off in Europe before they’re adopted by U.S. “progressives.” And what happened to pro-lifers at Oxford is downright alarming.
“If you want some first-hand experience of the contemporary free-speech debate, I recommend joining a student pro-life society,” Hitchens writes. “Last month, Oxford Students for Life, of which I am president, discovered the following clause was being put forward at the Oxford University students’ union: ‘Never to [provide a] platform [to] any group or organisation which provides directional advice around abortion or explicitly stands against women’s right to choose.'”
In other words, the student union tried to impose an all-out ban on speech that doesn’t explicitly support abortion. Outrageous? Yes—even “farcical,” according to Hitchens. But, he says, “It’s not necessarily humourless Stalinists who are behind these motions; believe it or not, many students are genuinely confused about what free speech is and why it matters.” Hitchens says this is a problem at universities throughout the UK, including Cardiff University, where there have been ongoing attempts to outlaw pro-life demonstrations.
Luckily, thanks to Oxford Students For Life’s relentless activism, the clause that threatened to ban pro-life speech at Oxford was defeated, 27 votes to 24. Hitchens says that free speech supporters helped vote it down, even if they were personally pro-choice.
“Most of those who supported us were not pro-life,” he writes. “As one of them told me afterwards: ‘I’m not on your side. I just believe in having the argument.’”
But what happens when people who don’t believe in “having the argument” become the majority, or worse, when they have positions of power over students? We’ve seen this problem in the US already. This spring, an associate professor at the University of California-Santa Barbara was arrested for physically assaulting a pro-life demonstrator on campus. If a professor who becomes physically violent at any hint of disagreement doesn’t have a chilling effect on student speech, I don’t know what does.
Although the student union voted in his pro-life group’s favor, Hitchens says that free speech on campus shouldn’t be up for a vote. “That simple point – indeed, the whole case for free speech – has to be made again before it is forgotten,” he writes. “You can hope for an informed, conscientious public debate, while recognising that such a debate won’t exist if some people feel they have the right to silence others. Which is why, when the right to free speech is endangered, so are all our other rights.”