Jude Perry, Contributor.
The recent controversy surrounding University City Dublin’s Students’ Union President, Katie Ascough raises a number of issues relating to political correctness and free speech on college campuses. There have recently been calls for Ascough’s impeachment after she removed a guide on how to receive an abortion which was included in literature distributed to UCD students. The Magazine entitled “Winging it,” included a guide to abortion pills and also the cost of obtaining abortions in different countries. The cost of removing the information, which involved having to reprint the magazine, cost the Union 8,000 euros; this has caused uproar among the student body in the republic’s largest university.
As abortion is illegal in the republic, Miss Ascough removed the abortion guide under legal advice, although the guide had been included in the magazine for the past 15 years. A referendum on her impeachment is tabled for the 24th and 25th of October. In September, a petition to hold a vote on impeachment was declared defective by the returning officer as it did not include student signatures which is mandated under the UCDSU constitution. However, the recent petition has gained over 1,600 signatures in a day, initiating a successful petition for impeachment.
Ascough’s election as UCD Student’s Union president last March came as a shock, particularly due to her pro-life stance. Ascough’s connection to the Iona Institute, an Irish think tank which pioneers conservative views, and her membership of Students for Life added to the surprise of her success. She gained 46% of the vote and topped the poll across every faculty in UCD in what was a four-way race. On the advent of her election, she did promise “not to throw her beliefs outside the door” but also vowed to “represent all students.”
As Ireland is due to hold a referendum on repealing the 8th amendment in 2018, the UCD students’ union will be campaigning for repeal after voting not to remain neutral in a referendum in 2014. Many students in UCD feel she will not be well suited to represent the Union’s position.
It would be just to say that Miss Ascough’s decision to remove the guide from the student magazine was a flawed and politically foolish decision however, does it warrant impeachment? I don’t think so. I am sympathetic towards Ascough and can understand that due to her conservative views, there would have been a large group of students who were searching for an excuse to fire the gun of impeachment from day one of her presidency.
It is becoming more and more difficult to be a Conservative on university campuses, especially as the student body becomes more left-leaning year on year. Many people can be fearful of sharing their views for the risk they could become a pariah. The case of Miss Ascough can be compared to incidents which occurred in the University of California, Berkeley, once the epitome of openness and free speech. In April of this year, the university cancelled a planned talk by right-wing writer Ann Coulter amidst safety concerns, Berkeley stated that they would re-host Coulter at a “protected venue” that May. Coulter refused and insisted on coming on the planned date, the event went ahead and a number of conservative activists spoke but Coulter herself did not, a protest was held although it was mostly peaceful. I believe the far right are the epitome of the worst that American politics has to offer however, I do believe that if Miss Coulter was invited to give a speech, for the sake of free speech, she should have been given the opportunity to do so without any risk of violence to her or those attending her talk.
I believe there is a growing element of the tyranny of the majority growing on college campuses and I feel sympathy for Miss Ascough’s cause and the cause of other pro-life students. There is no doubt there is a strong cohort within UCD who would have actively opposed her had this controversy arisen or not. I believe there would have been a strong agenda to remove Ascough as President due to her anti-abortion views. I say this as someone who is not a member of the pro-choice or pro-life campaign. I say this as someone who is a firm advocate for free speech.
Her decision to remove the piece which cost the union 8,000 euro was certainly short sighted. However, by impeaching her it could set a precedent for future Students’ Unions, that they can easily remove a democratically elected President simply due to them having opposing views on a subject, whether it be the case of abortion or another controversial issue.
The campaign to retain Ascough has gained steady momentum with a Facebook page entitled “fight4katie,” gaining over 2,000 likes. Ascough penned an open letter to UCD students last week in which she defended her decision. She claims that she wanted to republish the magazine online, but other members of the union had insisted on it being reprinted. In defence of her removal of the piece, she claims she took the correct course of action in order to ensure the students’ union was not acting illegally and upholds that she is maintaining her campaign promise to be impartial on the 8th amendment issue. The ongoing feud has caught major attention nationally and internationally from news sources such as The Guardian and The Irish Times.
If Miss Ascough is in fact removed from office this month it will set a dangerous precedent for students’ unions. It could potentially send a message to conservatives and pro-life students that you are not wanted in student politics. It could also give the impression that bullying can be used as a tactic in students’ union politics in order to achieve an agenda. Third level colleges should be a melting pot for free speech and open dialogue without the risk of ridicule. Ascough’s case raises the question of free speech on university campuses and could undermine the message of openness that colleges should be working to promote. We should welcome difference of opinion on every issue and refuse to allow the tyranny of the majority to determine our decisions.
Without doubt, whatever the result of the vote is in Belfield this month, it will have repercussions for universities all over the Island of Ireland, including Queen’s.