Free speech on campus protected: Allegations against midwifery student dismissed and suspension lifted
- Months long investigation triggered by involvement with pro-life society
- Universities required to uphold free speech for all students
NOTTINGHAM (18 January 2020) – A midwifery student was forced to suspend her studies after facing a fitness to practise investigation over her involvement with a pro-life society. Julia Rynkiewicz, a final year midwifery student at the University of Nottingham, was subject to an almost 4-month long investigation after concerns were raised about her involvement with the “Nottingham Students for Life” society. Rynkiewicz was immediately suspended by the University pending the outcome of the investigation which was ultimately dismissed by a Fitness to Practise Committee on 13 January. However her suspension meant that she was unable to complete required assessments in time and has led to her being forced to delay her studies. Rynkiewicz, who was supported by ADF International during the investigation, has now lodged a complaint with the University and is considering her options.
“Of all places, university is where students should be free to debate and explore ideas – even those with which they disagree. In this case, Julia’s involvement with an affiliated pro-life society led to her fitness to practise being investigated. The now dismissed allegations were initially withheld from Julia, then drip-fed, and then changed before she had the chance to respond. Universities should be committed to embracing a diversity of views across the student body and Julia’s treatment in this case represents a very chilling prospect for freedom of speech on campus,” said Laurence Wilkinson, Legal Counsel for ADF International in London, a legal advocacy organisation supporting free speech cases.
Rynkiewicz served as president of “Nottingham Students for Life”, a pro-life student society that was initially denied affiliation by Nottingham University’s Students’ Union. Concerns around Rynkiewicz’s fitness to practise centered on material available at the society’s freshers’ fair stall, as well as her public association with the society. However, in the wake of the allegations being dismissed, she believes that she was unfairly targeted for her beliefs and that there were significant procedural failures compromising the investigation.
“It is to Julia’s credit that she remains absolutely committed to completing her training, caring for women, and bringing life into the world. She is now considering her options, as no student should have to go through this kind of daunting process in the absence of clear and compelling reasons. The thought of students being hauled before a fitness to practise committee because other students or staff disagree with their views is completely unacceptable, and makes a mockery of the University experience,” Wilkinson continued.
Freedom of speech at UK universities
Recently, there has been a rise in the number of pro-life societies being established at universities across the UK. “Nottingham Students for Life” was initially blocked from affiliating with the Students’ Union on the basis that its views “did not align” with those of the Union. After the prospect of legal proceedings was raised, the decision was reversed and the society was granted affiliation. Pro-life societies at Glasgow University, Strathclyde University, and Aberdeen University experienced similar treatment, but all ultimately succeeded in overturning these decisions after raising free speech concerns.
In 2018, the Joint Committee on Human Rights in Parliament released a report on Freedom of Speech in Universities which criticised the “no-platforming” policies on UK campuses stifling debate around “unpopular” opinions. David Issacs, the Equality and Human Rights Commission Chair, has emphasised that universities should act as “bastions of debate and defenders of expression” and should not be hindering pro-life societies from affiliation simply because students disagree with their views.