A student-led petition calling for the disaffiliation of Exeter Students for Life, a pro-life society at the University of Exeter, has amassed close to 10,000 signatures in less than a week.
The petition, which currently has 8,716 signatures at time of writing, calls to ‘strike down’ the society for its ‘direct attack on women’s rights’ and condemns the Student Guild for affiliating the society in the first place.
The campaign gained traction following post made on anonymous student confession pages, with the students who started the petition, George Adamson, Lauren Gollop, and Isobel Maddocks, learning of the society’s existence through a post about it on Confexeter, and feeling “shocked that the University has endorsed and continues to sponsor this society.”
On their decision to create the petition they said:
“As students we have the ability to shape the direction of the Guild and so we must make a stand so that women across the university feel supported. The society also brought attention to Guild policy which is clearly in need of reform.”
The society also brought attention to Guild policy which is clearly in need of reform.”
When asked to respond to the accusations being made that their petition is anti-free-speech, George, Lauren, and Isobel said that “free speech does not come without caveats” and reported that the society had used “dangerous” language in a “now edited” Instagram post that said, “women should be ‘punished’ for abortion”. Citing Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986 which makes it an offence for a person to use “threatening…words or behaviours that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, alarm or distress”, the students said the comments made by the society “are clearly in breach of this”.
However, they also stressed that the petition “is not a personal attack” on members of the society and “do not endorse any hateful comments” towards them.
Since the petition was released online it has been shared hundreds of times across social media.
Following the petition, two open letters have been written to the Guild expressing similar concerns. The first, written by SAFESEXE, has been signed by 2,423 people so far, which includes not only Exeter students, but concerned students from across the country, as well as local residents.
The letter addresses the affiliation of Exeter Students for Life with the Guild and calls for “this affiliation to be removed and any funding that they are receiving to end”.
The students who wrote the open letter have requested to remain anonymous out of concern following hostile messages being directed to the group. The letter itself was initially targeted by trolls and saw names being removed by bad actors.
When asked why the decided to write the open letter, a spokesperson for the group stated that “having a pro-life society run by men on campus undermines a lot of the work around gender safety and equality that has been/is being done”. They added that they hoped to “open a productive dialogue with the Guild”.
Having a pro-life society run by men on campus undermines a lot of work around gender safety and equality that has been/is being done.”
On whether Exeter Students for Life should be protected by Freedom of Speech laws, they said:
“It is concerning if such speech is damaging to others…does it not cross the line when freedom of speech is used to aid an ideology that would limit the freedoms of people that have uteruses?”.
The group added that, “We have heard that the members comprising this society have been receiving death threats and we absolutely do not condone this and hope that any threats are dealt with appropriately and that the individuals are offered support from the University wellbeing teams. We should use our voices to petition, protest and open a dialogue with the Guild, rather than to send messages of abuse”.
The second letter, written by University of Exeter Law Society on behalf of groups and societies at Exeter, has nearly 150 signatures from student leaders and society committee members at time of writing. Societies whose committee members have signed the letter include Razz Magazine, Model Westminster and Period Poverty Exeter amongst many others.
“As the largest Guild affiliated society, we felt that we had a platform to voice our concern about Exeter Student’s for Life” stated vice-president Tom Moser and co-presidents Rawan Alsamawi and Nathaniel Guerreiro. “Opting to write an open letter was to ensure we did not present this as UELS vs ESFL, but rather to demonstrate the dissatisfaction of Societies and Groups as a collective, that represented the views of the majority of students in a pragmatic manner that would make a Guild response viable.
When questioned on whether this was a free speech issue, the representatives of Exeter Law Society replied “Freedom of speech absolutely applies in this instance. However, our society has a right to express our views and we do not think that the values and rhetoric pushed by this group align with our commitment to promoting safety and accessibility in all student spaces. ES4L is not an organization we’d like to exist in the same umbrella as or associate with.”
The society also stressed that they “understand that Guild is doing the best they can to diffuse the situation and adhere to their own policies regarding societies, as well as complying with their role as an apolitical entity governed by the charity commission”, but noted “there needs to be more work done on imposing a responsibility and obligation on societies to be inclusive and safe spaces for students”, as well as “more assessment of our current safeguarding policies and what we can do to tackle misogyny.”
As the campaign gathered momentum, students organised a protest against Exeter Students For Life affiliation with the Guild; this took place Saturday October 9. The Guild said that they would “support students in forming to share their views.”
Greg Zoppos, who organised the protest, stated that he decided to start the protest because the Exeter Student’s for Life group had “crossed the line.” He added that the protest would “not be aggressive” and that COVID-19 safety would be implemented through available masks, hand sanitiser and volunteers encouraging people to “respect each other’s personal space”.
Protesters in attendance stated that it isn’t “enough for abortion to be legal, shame kills as well”. Others told Exepose that “freedom of speech only works when it doesn’t target a specific group”.
Another protestor stated that she thought the culture of misogyny in Exeter is “definitely linked” to the pro-life group as you “can’t seperate abortion from women’s rights… it’s the same hateful ideology”.
A speaker at the protest stated that: “What we need to change is people trying to regulate our body, men trying to regulate our body, our choice, cause that is not acceptable in any sort of way. We’re not going to sit here on a campus that advocates for safety and be called murderers for making a medical choice that was probably going to save us in the long run. We all stand here today fighting against inequality, prejudice and men”.
Five members from Exeter Students for Life were in attendance with a sign reading ‘Life starts at conception, no exception’, however they declined to comment or answer questions. They added that they would be running an information stall in the Forum this Thursday or Friday.
Many of these issues were addressed at the Guild Council Meeting on Wednesday 6, where SAAB officers answered students questions directly. Students in attendance criticised the officers, stating that their reaction had been “shamefully underwhelming” and “embarrassing”.
Three primary points were raised concerning whether the society is protected by freedom of speech, whether they are sponsored by the Guild and the personal views of the officers.
Regarding freedom of speech, officers stated that the issue was “complex and challenging” but that Exeter Students For Life had been founded in 2019 in accordance with their affiliation process. They added that the Guild must be compliant with the law and are unable to have stances on the viewpoints of societies. Officers made clear however that the law on free speech was “not up for discussion”.
When questioned on the personal views of the full-time officers in regards to abortion, Guild President Lily Margaroli responded that it would not be helpful for officers to share their own views on the matter. However, the officers stressed that Exeter Students for Life don’t necessarily represent the views of the Guild. A representative of the Guild also stressed that this situation is “as difficult for us as it is for you”, and that they “understand the gravity” of the situation. They also made clear that Exeter Students for Life receives no funding from the Guild outside of the money made from memberships, and any money they could access through grants would be available to all societies.
Students also challenged the officers on whether Exeter Students for Life promotes hate speech and harm against women, to which they directed anyone who feels the society’s actions equal hate speech to the formal complaints process. However, they noted the high volume of complaints they have received already including the two open letters, and asked for no more complaints to be made as they would “slow down the process”.
Issues surrounding support and wellbeing were also raised, with officers “unsure” of what specific Guild abortion or pregnancy support was available during the meeting. However, they highlighted wellbeing resources for those affected by these issues and talking to the Guild advice team. As a direct result of the meeting, a list of resources and free advice was compiled regarding issues of pregnancy, contraception and well-being which can be found here.
Despite vocal criticism, some students have reacted positively to how the Guild have responded. One second year politics student told Exeposé that they believed “the Student Guild has handled the situation extremely well overall. It has kept up good communications with students about its position, its legal obligations and stopping the spread of untruths. The Guild has said that it would be illegal for them to disaffiliate and explained that it does not provide funding for the society.” However, they went on to state that they “think the group should be closely monitored by those concerned about it’s intentions though. Every society has to stick to the code of conduct and it wouldn’t surprise me if the Students for Life broke that code pretty soon.”
Exeter Students for Life’s affiliation with the Guild has caught the attention of mental health activist, Ben West, who has been vocal about his view of the society online and shared SAFESEXE’s open letter. In a comment for Exeposé, he said, “Freedom of speech and our individual right to be able to speak up against injustice is incredibly important, and that why I feel its our duty now as people who care for the rights of women and people with a uterus that we stand up against this so called ‘pro-life’ society, because it is an injustice. Its very presence is a threat towards women; it casts a shadow of misogyny over all the progress taken towards tacking sexism, gender equity and women’s safety. It is essential that if we do believe women deserve better, we start doing more than just saying it. If we actually want to see societal change, the university must do better.”
The Guild responded to the open letters and numerous complaints with the following statement:
“We know that many of you are disappointed with our position regarding free speech, but we are appealing to you to understand that disaffiliation of a society based on their views is unlawful. We are regulated on such activity by the Charities Commission and under the Education Act. It is our legal duty to ensure freedom of speech on our campuses, and it is your legal right to protest the views you don’t agree with”.
We know that many of you are disappointed with out position regarding free speech, but we are appealing to you to understand that disaffiliation of a society based on their views is unlawful.”
Alireza Ghazi-Torbati, President of the Exeter University Students For Life, provided this statement through Christian Concern, a not-for-profit religious advocacy groups::
“As a society we speak up for and take a stand for the rights of pre-born children, 200,000 of which lose their lives to abortion every year in this country. We aim to equip pro-life students to advocate for the pro-life position and to provide a space to discuss the issue respectfully and sensitively. We also aim to support prospective and current student parents, as well as those who may be suffering post-abortive trauma.
“The UK has traditionally been a bastion of free speech, but in recent years that has been eroded and the trend has been reflected in over 100 of our universities. Pro-life groups in particular have been targeted and faced attempted censorship for valid beliefs held by many across the world.
“Our student group should enjoy the same rights as every other student group on campus, free of discrimination or harassment. The death threats made against members of our society are completely unacceptable and deeply disturbing. We have contacted the university. We would like them to take immediate action on this.
“Exeter University must be a marketplace for free thinking, which is what universities are designed to be. As George Orwell said: ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.’”