A pro-life student group at the University of Aberdeen filed a lawsuit on Friday against the university and its student association after it was blocked from affiliating because of its pro-life stance.
In October the Aberdeen University Students’ Association prevented the affiliation of the Aberdeen Life Ethics Society, citing its own pro-choice policy. The move limits ALES’s access to funds and venues at the university.
ALES filed suit in the Aberdeen Sheriff Court April 12 “alleging unlawful discrimination against the society and the violation of rights protected by UK law.”
Alex Mason, spokesperson for ALES, said April 14: “The past several months of obstructions and delays have been frustrating, but they have served to strengthen our resolve to see this unlawful policy repealed. The pro-life position may be an unpopular minority opinion on this campus, but it is fully protected by law.”
“The right to speak freely must be equally applied to all students, not just to those who already agree with the majority opinion,” Mason added.
The lawsuit requests that the court find AUSA’s “deplatforming pro-life student societies” incompatible with equality and human right laws.
ALES also asks that the court recommend it be affiliated to the student association “complete with the benefits and privileges that other societies enjoy.”
The pro-life group announced the rejection of its application for affiliation on October 19, 2018, saying: “We were rejected because the Student Council passed a policy in November 2017 declaring AUSA to be ‘pro-choice’ and pledging to ‘no-platform’ any society that opposes abortion. Since our proposed society is unashamedly pro-life, we have been banned from affiliating.”
The pro-life group said that the pro-choice policy is “being used as political cover to ban student speech on campus, it also treats the student body as undivided on the issue of abortion.”
AUSA has cited its pro-choice policy, adopted in November 2017, as the basis for its decision. The policy says, in part, that “AUSA should oppose the unreasonable display of pro-life material within campus and at AUSA events.”
ALES has said April 14 that its “repeated efforts to resolve this problem through internal bureaucratic channels were to no avail.”
It claimed that after a two-month delay, the university administration declined to intervene with AUSA, “suggesting we appeal” to the student association.
“We appealed to AUSA on the grounds that its no platform policy is a violation of both the Equality Act 2010 and the Human Rights Act 1998 insofar as it restricts the freedoms of association and belief for certain students on the basis of an ideological litmus test. We urged AUSA’s Board of Trustees to exercise its constitutional ability to rescind any policy it deems to be in breach of the law.”
ALES said that the board “informed us last week that they would not repeal the policy” but would recommend that the student council do so.
The pro-life group also said it has twice submitted motions to the student body to allow its affiliation, but “on both occasions … our motions were decisively defeated by the students in attendance.”
“It was disconcerting to watch our fellow students affirm and uphold our legal disenfranchisement, but it serves as proof that student democracy at Aberdeen is broken, serving only to insulate students from dissenting opinions.”
ALES stated that “at this point, all good faith avenues for resolution have been exhausted and ALES is now forced to turn to the legal system for restitution and vindication.”
AUSA has stated that it cannot comment on ALES’s legal action, but that the group “were invited to re-apply for affiliation as an AUSA society, with the reassurance that the application would be treated in the same way as any other,” but that “no application has been received.”
A spokesperson for the University of Aberdeen commented that it is “an inclusive community and recognises different beliefs, values and cultures.”
Pro-life groups at other Scottish universities have faced similar problems.
Last year the University of Strathclyde (in Glasgow) lifted a similar ban on pro-life groups, following legal pressure. Strathclyde Sudents for Life argued that the student associaton’s no platforming policy violated the Equality Act 2010 “by directly discriminating against a group of students based on their beliefs.”
Glasgow Students for Life were barred from affiliation by the Glasgow University’s Students’ Representative Council last November.
In March 2018 a joint committee on human rights of the UK parliament noted troubling barriers to free speech at the nation’s universities, writing: “Whilst the original intention behind safe space policies may have been to ensure that minority or vulnerable groups can feel secure, in practice the concept of safe spaces has proved problematic, often marginalising the views of minority groups.”
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