David Holmes: We are besieged by hatred and vitriol

An issue such as the use of animals in research should be the subject of reasoned debate

Share

Freedom of expression is the best-qualified midwife for delivering advances in human knowledge and understanding. Without it, the pursuit of truth and the sharing of wisdom atrophy and die. All great universities have this reality at their heart; they cannot remain great otherwise. Oxford University certainly knows it and lives it: argument is how Oxford cuts its teeth.

But this freedom, we also know, has to be exercised responsibly. The right to free expression operates within constraints designed to protect the rights of others from the illegitimate infringement of their liberty: incitement to racial hatred is an obvious instance where protection trumps free speech.

It is precisely because we recognise both the importance of freedom of expression and the importance of exercising it in a way that does not unfairly constrain the freedom of others that Oxford is seeking a fresh legal ruling over the activities of animal extremists.

The context of the University's decision to return to the High Court to seek a new injunction is that its staff, students, funders, contractors and suppliers have all been the targets of a rising tide of threats and intimidation. The goal appears to be the use of fear to halt not only the building of a new biomedical facility but also any research involving the use of animals, regardless of the benefits it can bring humankind.

The methods being used have grown alarmingly in both range and intensity since the University was first granted a measure of protection by the courts for the project over a year ago. Far from recognising the case for reasonable limits on their activities, extremists have sought to extend their intimidation to anyone and everyone with any connection to the University.

Their combined effect far exceeds the limits of legitimate protest. Extremist tactics include abusive e-mails and letters, claims to neighbours that individuals are paedophiles, death threats, and damage to private and University property. A member of staff at an architect's firm, which had once done some work for the University - nothing to do with animals - had his car and garage vandalised. A college boathouse was burned down.

Sadly, but understandably, this campaign of hatred and vitriol has had an impact on the terms of debate. It is crucial that an issue such as the use of animals in research should be the subject of full and reasoned discussion, the kind of rational and intelligent conversation that this University is built on.

Scientists need to be able to say why research is necessary. At the same time, it is hardly surprising that anyone told they, their families and their livelihoods are at risk might think twice about exposing their safety to this kind of threat. Yet the overwhelming scientific consensus on the subject is clear: without this limited and highly regulated research countless human lives may continue to be lost to diseases that could be cured. It is this reality that has helped to inspire the recent grassroots demonstrations in favour of the new facility in Oxford.

Given the extraordinary scope of extremist intimidation, the University has been forced to seek to extend the scope of the legal remedies and protection available to it. So far, thanks to a recent interim order, our staff and students have been granted temporary relief from the siege to which they have been subjected while trying to enter, work and study in departments that happen to be close to the new facility. Amplified abuse shouted through a loudhailer for hours on end and tapes of air raid sirens played through windows makes people's lives a misery; so does the aggressively targeted taking of people's photos - intimidation that the court has also now constrained, for the time being at least.

At a further hearing we will ask that these temporary measures be made permanent. We will also ask for the size and duration of protests to be reduced and for a restricted area round the construction site to be expanded. In addition, we believe that university funders and suppliers, who are now subject to threats themselves, are entitled to specific protection under the law.

What of the right to legal protest? Activists would still be able to hold a weekly demonstration in view of the construction site and could continue to apply to the police to demonstrate at other times in the normal way. Those who believe that the evidence supports legal changes to prevent such research in its entirety should surely seek to change the law through the democratic process, not through undermining and subverting it.

The writer is the Registrar of Oxford University

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Telemarketers / Sales - Home Based - OTE £23,500

£19500 - £23500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Experienced B2B Telemarketer wa...

Recruitment Genius: Showroom Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This global company are looking for two Showro...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This publishing company based i...

Day In a Page

Read Next
New BBC series Britain's Hardest Grafter seems to be tapping into the 'poverty porn' trend started by C4's Benefits Street  

'Benefits Street' meets 'The Hunger Games' is a new low for the BBC

Alice Jones
 

It may be early-onset senility to blame, but I’m sure the FA Cup Final used to be far more memorable

Matthew Norman
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor