The pro-life charity, Life, have filed an official complaint with the Office for Students after being refused a stall at the University of Manchester’s freshers’ fair, who argued that it did not think that the fair was the correct platform for Life.
It has also been refused stalls by The University of Warwick Students’ Union and The Guild of Students – University of Liverpool.
In the letter to the Office for Students, Anne Scanlan, the Director of Education for Life, wrote: “It is clear that the university student unions […] are discriminating against Life and denying us a platform because they do not agree with our pro-life views”.
“In doing so, they are impeding freedom of expression of views which they do not agree with but other students may want to hear”.
She went on to call the refusal “discrimination” and argued that it was stifling Life’s right to freedom of expression.
Additionally, Senior Education and Media officer at Life, Mark Bhagwandin, told The Mancunion that the rejection was “surprising and disappointing”.
In a statement, the Students’ Union Exec Team stood by the decision, arguing that the stall was not student-led and therefore could not be guaranteed to be representing the view of students, saying: “Although we have different political parties with stalls at the freshers fair (which are all student-led societies), these campaign on a range of different issues that allow students to choose themselves whether or not to support and join any of their individual campaigns.
“Life charity are promoting a very sensitive issue that specifically campaign against one of the values we hold as a Union: giving women a choice to do what they want with their bodies.”
Last month, Office for Students chair Sir Michael Barber issued a statement, which explained: “The Office for Students will work to ensure all registered providers have robust and effective management and governance arrangements in place to protect and promote freedom of speech”, adding “where we have concerns, we will not hesitate to intervene to uphold this fundamental principle”.
Freedom of expression has been a contentious issue on university campuses across the world, with several high-profile controversial speakers being ‘no-platformed’ — prohibited from speaking. In 2015, students at Cardiff University attempted to block feminist academic Germaine Greer from speaking at the university, and in 2017 UC Berkeley cancelled a lecture by alt-right activist Milo Yiannopoulos after violent student protests.
A survey conducted in 2016 showed 63% of students were in favour of the National Union of Students (NUS) enforcing a ‘no platforming’ policy which would allow them to block certain individuals or organisations from speaking at their events.
The University of Manchester Students’ Union insisted that this was not an example of no-platforming, stating: “We are happy for charities such as this one to represent themselves on platforms such as the several debating forums we hold. But it is not appropriate for the freshers fair where there will be hundreds of new students. Many of whom will already be nervous about leaving home and starting a new University career.”
However, there is no clear consensus between students on the issue. A second-year student who chose to comment anonymously told The Mancunion: “even though there may be a clear majority of pro-choice opinions among students, I think it is vital to ensure all perspectives are represented at an event that functions to provide new undergraduates with platforms to express their views throughout their time at university.”
Life has not previously held a stall at the University of Manchester freshers fair, but has done so at other universities across the country. This was the first time the charity applied for a stall at the University of Manchester. They expect a response from the Office for Students within the next week.