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

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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

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