A talk at Oxford University has been disrupted by officials from the students’ union, who led a protest by shouting slogans for half an hour.
The event at St John’s College was organised by a pro-life society, Oxford Students for Life (OSFL), to discuss the forthcoming abortion referendum in Ireland. The speakers were Irish Times columnist Breda O’Brien and Lorcan Price of the Pro-Life Campaign.
When O’Brien began to speak, around 15 students stood up and began chanting “at top volume”, according to audience member Michael Wee. The chants included “Pro-life, that’s a lie, you don’t care if women die” and “They say no choice – we say pro-choice.”
The protest was organised by the Women’s Campaign (WomCam), a subsidiary group of Oxford University Students’ Union.
Wee said: “Given it was a small room and there were about 40 inside including the protesters, it was difficult even to speak to one’s neighbour.
“Some of the pro-life women including Breda O’Brien ended up standing at the front with improvised signs saying ‘I’m a woman’, ‘Can we discuss?, ‘I want the right to speak’.”
The college authorities tried to intervene to allow the event to resume. After an altercation between a security officer and a protester, the police were called. The event was able to continue after moving to another room.
In a statement posted on Facebook, OSFL said that they “remain committed to dialogue with anyone willing to listen. We are here, we are not going anywhere, and we’re incredibly grateful to everyone who came along.”
OSFL secretary Georgia Clarke said: “The irony was that the actions of Oxford SU’s WomCam, which ought to represent women of the university, resulted in the harassment of many women present for the event, some of whom were driven to tears. As committee members we have a duty of care to those who attend our events and it was distressing not being able to provide the supportive and open environment we had promised.
“We invited students to hear speakers, not to be shouted at. The shouting essentially amounted to an attempt to no-platform our speakers. In being party to this protest, the Oxford SU is making us feel like neither we, nor our views, are welcome to even be heard in this university.”
Co-president Anna Branford said: “We had attempted to create an atmosphere in which all views were welcome and everyone would have a chance to speak, but were instead met with shouting, middle fingers and vitriol.”
WomCam has not yet responded to a request for comment.
Last month the universities minister, Jo Johnson, said that the government would take a tougher line on making universities adhere to their legal duty of protecting free speech. Johnson said he was “proud that some of our university leaders and academics have publicly defended free speech. But there are still examples of censorship where groups have sought to stifle those who do not agree with them.”