‘Oxford triggers national row over free speech by cancelling abortion debate.’
It was an accurate headline. In November, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill was due to speak at Oxford University’s Christ Church College at an event organised by the pro-life group, Oxford Students for Life (OSFL). He was going to speak in opposition to the motion ‘This House Believes Britain’s Abortion Culture Hurts Us All’. He was going to champion people’s bodily autonomy. He was going to make a humanist case for women’s right to choose. But, thanks to a mob of Twittered-up Oxford students, some acting for Oxford University’s Student Union Women’s Campaign, others for self-styled feminist vanguards, he never got the chance. The debate was cancelled. Shut down. Silenced.
As Buzzfeed recounts, feminist students threatened to ‘take along some non-destructive but oh-so-disruptive instruments to help demonstrate to the anti-choicers just what we think of their “debate”’, before adding: ‘We are still hoping this gets shut down by the college (Christ Church).’ They were successful, too. Christ Church’s student committee, aka the Junior Common Room, voted to ‘inform College Censors about the mental and physical security issues surrounding the debate’. And it seems the College Censors agreed, stating that they were keen to ensure ‘students’ emotional wellbeing’ by ‘avoiding unnecessary distress, particularly for any residents who may have had an abortion’.
And just like that, a debate organised by a private society was shut down by an external authority. Some publications, such as the New Statesman, thought this was hunky dory; others, such as the National Review and the Christian Post, issued laments. But what was truly jaw-dropping for anyone with a residual sense of the meaning of liberty and freedom was that those trying to prevent the debate from happening, those ‘hoping this gets shut down by the college’, those exerting pressure on college authorities to do ‘the right thing’, posed as free-speech warriors. That’s right - they weren’t preventing unfashionable views on abortion from being aired; they were just using their free speech (albeit to oppose the debate’s existence). As one of the Oxford non-censoring censors, Niamh McIntyre, put it in the Independent: ‘Cancelling the debate is not a violation of free speech… Pro-life groups have plenty of platforms to air their views — and in light of the cancellation I’m confident that OSFL will not fail to do so.’ (OSFL failed to do so, being unable to find a new venue at incredibly short notice.) She continued this train of contradictory thought in a piece on Left Foot Forward: ‘We did not originally call for the event to be shut down by the college – we had intended to implement the No Platform ourselves by popular protest.’ That no-platforming speakers, whether by popular protest or unpopular protest, is still censorship seems to have evaded the illiberal illogic of our intrepid campaigner.
O’Neill, writing in the Tab, noted the whiff of doublespeak about statements like ‘Cancelling the debate is not a violation of free speech’: ‘Orwell must be kicking himself in his coffin for not thinking of putting such doublespeaking words in the mouths of his tyrannical characters in 1984. Just as they insisted that “war is peace”, so today’s Big Sisters on campus claim “censorship is freedom”.’ ‘Pretty appalling, but unsurprising’ was the verdict of a writer for the Washington Post.