A student council at one of Scotland’s leading universities has criticised the intervention of ‘dark money’ from a right wing US Christian organisation in a row over freedom of speech.

The comments came after an anti-abortion society at the University of Glasgow called Glasgow Students for Life (GSL) was granted affiliation by the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) following a legal challenge.

GSL was backed by a right wing Christian group based in America called ADF International (Alliance Defending Freedom) which has links to Donald Trump’s administration. ADF International has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds in the UK lobbying but does not reveal who provides its funding.

GSL raised a complaint against the SRC after it ruled last November that the pro-life group would not be given affiliation.  SRC’s decision meant they could not access funding for events, use meeting rooms or host a stall at the annual freshers fair.

SRC said then its ruling was made because the aims of GSL did not align with council’s values. But GSL has now been granted membership after successfully arguing that the ruling violated the UK Equality Act of 2010 and discriminated against their beliefs.

The student group also argued that SRC breached its own equality and diversity policy in denying them access to facilities and that it risked breaching the 2016 Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act, which says universities should protect freedoms to “present controversial or unpopular points of view”.

I’m unsure as to why an organisation in the USA is interested in what is, in the grand scheme of things, a very minor matter involving a handful of students who were still free to meet and hold events on campus while they were unaffiliated, and whose freedom of speech was never compromised. Lauren McDougall, Student Representative Council president

Both Glasgow Students for Life and ADF International welcomed the student council’s move to reverse its decision. But SRC’s president, Lauren McDougall, said it was disturbing that a foreign organisation became involved in a local dispute.

“In my view I’m unsure as to why an organisation in the USA is interested in what is, in the grand scheme of things, a very minor matter involving a handful of students who were still free to meet and hold events on campus while they were unaffiliated, and whose freedom of speech was never compromised,” McDougall said.

“I find it very concerning that an external organisation with a history of funding anti-equality campaigns thinks it’s appropriate to get involved in something at this scale, and it could lead to worrying outcomes in the future if student organisations find themselves bullied by organisations with greater resource and a bigger platform than them.”

McDougall said that the SRC “supports the right for everyone to make decisions about their own lives free from judgement” and that the decision not to affiliate GSL was not about censorship or free speech.

“GSL were never banned and have been holding conversations on campus for over six months without SRC affiliation. The SRC respect everyone’s right to hold their own beliefs, however we believe a line is crossed when those beliefs seek to restrict the rights of others,” McDougall said.

SRC was backed by Jillian Merchant, vice chair of Abortion Rights, who said they were “deeply concerned” over links between GSL and ADF.  “This is an American Conservative, anti-choice, organisation who oppose abortion and actively campaign to shut down Planned Parenthood in the United States,” she said.

“It is disappointing that a group espousing such anti-choice views has been granted affiliation with the Glasgow University student representative body.”

She added: “Regardless of their affiliation, it should be noted that such views are radical and out-of-touch. Abortion is legal and very common – one in three women will have an abortion in her lifetime, and the vast majority of those polled in this country support a woman’s right to choose. Their views are simply out of step with public opinion and with the lived reality of many people.

“It is often the case that people philosophise over abortion but Abortion Rights look from the point of view of the pregnant woman. It is only that woman, in circumstances where she does not want to be pregnant, who can decide what happens over her body.”

However, SRC’s move was welcomed by Laurence Wilkinson, legal counsel for ADF International in London. A university is where “students should be free to debate and explore ideas, even those with which we may disagree,” he said.

“Freedom of speech is the foundation of every free and democratic society. Of all places, a university is where students should be free to debate and explore ideas, even those with which we may disagree.”

He added: “It simply does not work when a students’ body ‘picks sides’ and censors the one with which it disagrees. It is sad that it took the prospect of legal proceedings for the representative council to recognise this. We congratulate the ‘Glasgow Students for Life’ on their new affiliation.”

Grace Deighan, president of Glasgow Students for Life said they were grateful that the SRC had granted affiliation. “We look forward to starting a conversation on campus,” she said.

“The group’s intention is one that is primarily academic, and given that there are other pro-abortion and pro-euthanasia groups affiliated, we believe that it is only fair for the pro-life argument to have a place at the despatch box.”

Glasgow Students for Life received support from ADF International which is an anti-LGBT group in the US which also opposes same-sex marriage equality. According to Open Democracy, ADF International has spent more than £410,000 in the UK since 2017 and is connected to a small number of British campaigners who are opposed to assisted dying.

[ADF has] become one of the most influential groups informing the [Trump] administration’s attack on LGBT rights. Southern Poverty Law Center

Headquartered in Phoenix, Arizona, ADF was co-founded 25 years ago by a US Christian right leader, Alan Sears, who co-wrote a book condemning “the homosexual agenda” as the “principal threat to religious freedom today”.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors extremists in America, has described it as an anti-LGBT hate group that has “become one of the most influential groups informing the [Trump] administration’s attack on LGBT rights”.

The global wing of ADF has a multi-million dollar budget but does not disclose who its funders are. It opened an office in London two years ago and is spending hundreds of thousands in the UK.

The group has publicly opposed ‘buffer zones’ limiting pro-life protests around British abortion clinics and supported calls for “freedom of conscience” provisions to enable medical staff to independently object to providing legal abortion services.

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