Law suit threat hangs over student unions banning pro-lifers at freshers fairs

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Leading Catholic barrister warns universities they are responsible for student groups that breach discrimination and human rights legislation


University student unions that ban controversial faith groups from their events face the increasing prospect of being sued, as a specialist lawyer warned they are likely to be in breach of a range of legislation.

Neil Addison (picture below), a crime and discrimination specialist senior junior at Liverpool’s New Bailey Chambers, lashed out last week at a Scottish student union for in his view attempting to quash freedom of speech.

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The Catholic Herald newspaper reported that Dundee University’s students association attempted to ban anti-abortion group, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, from manning a stall at the university’s freshers’ fair.

The paper quoted Addison — the national director of the Thomas More Legal Centre — as saying:

“I hope [the society] sue [the union], and certainly if any student union in England or Wales attempts to copy [Dundee’s union], the Thomas More Legal Centre will not hesitate to take legal action against them.”

The Liverpool-based centre is a charity providing specialist free legal advice in cases involving alleged religious discrimination in England and Wales.

The Herald reported that the union president at Dundee University said the society had been barred because its stances on contraception and abortion, as well as homosexual rights, “directly conflict with the charitable objectives of DUSA”.

The newspaper went on to quote Addison as describing the student union’s position as “legal gibberish”, adding:

“There is nothing in the DUSA constitution which is in conflict with the purposes of SPUC… DUSA have followed the Stalinist approach of … assuming that they have the right to determine what ideas students are allowed to hear.”

Speaking to Legal Cheek, Addison — who started his career as an employed barrister at the Crown Prosecution Service and is a former member of the bar’s ruling council — said his centre would be unable to take a case in Scotland because of jurisdictional issues.

However, he said the centre had so far dealt with about half a dozen similar cases south of the border. Addison would not name the English universities involved, maintaining he attempts to resolve the disputes without publicity.

“Instances of this type of behaviour keep cropping up,” he said. “It’s like guerrilla warfare. But most student unions seem to have backed away from going as far as Dundee.”

Addison — the author of the 2006 book “Religious Discrimination and Hate Law” — is a Catholic, who also publishes a multi-faith website called ReligionLawUK. He says student union attempts to ban pro life groups are likely to run foul of the Equality Act 2010, which covers discrimination on the grounds of philosophical beliefs.

The lawyer explained that his standard tactic is to target university administrators rather than student unions. “It is the responsibility of universities to ensure freedom of speech,” he said. “The universities have a legal obligation under the Education No2 Act 1986 to ensure that freedom, which applies to students, employees, visiting speakers.

According to Addison, that legislation covers the activities of student unions, and attempts to ban some religious groups also breach provisions in the Human Rights Act 1998.