Student union at UCL backs down on the advice of lawyers
A student rebellion has crushed an attempt to ban free discussion of abortion at a leading British university.
The National Union of Students at the University College London abandoned its plans to impose pro-abortion speakers on students’ groups if they ever tried to arrange a talk by a speaker critical of terminations.
The climbdown was forced by a coalition of students who objected to what they considered to be an attack on free speech.
Union trustees accepted advice from their own lawyers that the students were right to claim that the move to curtail free speech had been “completely illegal”.
The students had claimed that the resolution had breached Section 43 of the 1986 Education Act that protects freedom of expression in universities and had threatened the union with a legal challenge.
Trustees were also told that proposals to affiliate and donate to the political Abortion Rights campaign were also against the charity laws that govern students’ unions.
Their decision to drop the pro-abortion resolutions could have huge repercussions in students’ unions across Britain that already give money to Abortion Rights, including those of Oxford, Leeds and Goldsmith College at the University of London.
The row erupted after the UCL Catholic Society invited Lord Alton of Liverpool, the former Lib Dem MP, to give a talk about the right to life last October.
The students union passed a motion stating: “Any future open events focusing on the issue of termination invite an anti-choice speaker and a pro-choice speaker as well as an independent chair, to ensure there is a balance to the argument.”
Cajetan Skowronski, the incoming president of the Catholic Society, said that afterwards “students from all kinds of backgrounds approached us and said ‘if you want to challenge this we will support you because it’s ridiculous that a union is trying to impose one opinion on us, especially at a university”.
“We had support from people who were pro-choice as well as those who were pro-life,” he said.
Catholic, Jewish and Sikh students later informed the union in a joint letter that they would not abide by the resolution.
Students then initiated legal action against the union which resulted in a meeting of the trustees who threw out the resolutions.
Mr Skrowronski, who attended the meeting, said the trustees took the simple view that “if it’s illegal we can’t do it and if it’s impractical we can’t do it”.
Neil Addison, the director of the Thomas More Legal Centre who advised the students, said: “I am delighted with this result which is due to the courage of pro-life students refusing to be intimidated.
“I find it worrying that a students’ union should be so ignorant of the concept of free speech and demonstrate such a totalitarian and intolerant mindset,” he said.
“Pro-abortionists are increasingly trying to prevent the pro life message being heard and to close down debate on the subject of abortion,” Mr Addison added. “That will not be allowed to happen.”