Sunday 16 December 2018

Comment: Caught between a student union rock and a legal hard place

The impeachment of UCD student union president Katie Ascough was a new low point for free speech and fairness, writes Maria Steen

Katie Ascough: A bright future despite impeachment
Katie Ascough: A bright future despite impeachment

Maria Steen

Last Thursday night Katie Ascough, the UCD student union president, was impeached by her fellow students.

Before conspiracy theorists start whispering, let me declare openly that I am against abortion, that I am a spokesperson for the Iona Institute and that I know Katie Ascough.

I know her to be an intelligent, talented, warm and energetic person. But the past few weeks have also shown her to be a young woman of immense courage and inner strength, who has become an inspiration for thousands of people across the country.

What happened in UCD last Thursday was the climax of a sorry tale in which a good and honest person had her name blackened, her trust betrayed and her words and actions twisted by a lynch mob.

Ascough - who is openly pro-life - had been elected student union president only five months earlier. She was impeached by popular vote on the pretext that she set about imposing her own pro-life views on the students of UCD.

In reality, the charges laid against her were never substantiated. The main complaint was that she had prevented distribution of a booklet, prepared for incoming first-year students, because it contained information on how to obtain an abortion in the UK - and in reprinting the book with a differently worded page, had wasted union money.

The reality was that the unsolicited information was clearly illegal under an Act of 1995. Had she authorised its release, both she and the union, as well as others concerned in its distribution, would have been committing an offence and liable to criminal conviction.

As soon as she was made aware there was a question of legality, Ascough sought advice from the union's lawyer, who happens to be pro-choice. She published that advice during the impeachment campaign, and it clearly states that "distributing the handbook with this text will almost undoubtedly constitute a breach of the Act", and that "the prudent course of action would be to avoid proceeding with the current handbook, whether through redesign (if not too late) or cancellation".

Ascough had delegated the preparation of the booklet to others. Only when another staff member commented on the issue - after the books had already been printed - was the issue brought to Ascough's attention and was she then in a position to take advice. The choice she faced was to obey the law or to knowingly break it.

Contrary to the loudly-expressed views of the mob calling for her head, obedience to the law is not the imposition of one's views on others.

Yet remarkably, some of our parliamentarians joined in criticising Ascough for not breaking a law made by our parliament. Senator Ivana Bacik - a lawyer - deserves special mention for weighing-in, without the inconvenience of responsibility or liability for error, to dispute the written legal advice of the union's lawyer, and to lecture the girl on what she should have done. That someone of her age, experience and standing would criticise a young woman in Ascough's unenviable position demonstrates the extent to which pursuit of a pro-abortion agenda overrode basic fairness and empathy.

The context is also important. As one Twitter user commented, no UCD student has ever said, "Oh no! I'm pregnant! Where's my student handbook?" All the information there could have been obtained in moments by anyone with an internet connection.

In the end, the booklet was reprinted, with a revised page, indicating telephone numbers and web addresses from which the relevant information could be obtained, should the reader wish.

Ascough's opponents also decried her because of questions she asked about the funding of pro-choice organisations and the positioning of "UCD for Choice" in the union tent during freshers' week. Ascough explained, in a video published on her Facebook page, that she was merely doing her job in asking questions, as she would for any other group. But no questions are allowed to be asked of the pro-choice zealots.

So a small group of students, committed to unseating Ascough from the first day she was elected, set about fomenting unrest.

The pretext of their campaign was that she had gone against her election promise to support the pro-choice mandate and delegate on issues relating to abortion. In my opinion the real reason was that she is Catholic and pro-life.

On the very day she was elected, one of the leaders of the campaign publicly called for her impeachment.

Impeachment of an elected official is usually reserved only for the most serious of offences. Even taking her detractors' case at its highest, her "crimes" were to follow the law and question her officers' suggestions.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the result, given the university setting, was that no intellectual debate or rigour was brought to bear on the issue by most of the students, rather an emotional reaction in which students showed no interest in fair procedures, no respect for a different viewpoint and, most worryingly of all, no empathy.

But it seems the scent of blood was too much for the mob.

Engaging in a ruse to defame and discredit her before she had a chance to open her mouth, her opponents and fellow union officers set about their character assassination. All this was done with the compliance of the University Observer, which published articles against her in a ratio of 10:1.

Online abuse rose to incendiary levels, with the most vile language used against Ascough and threats - including one from a male student who said "but tomorrow when I go to UCD I'm going to punch Katie Ascough in the back of the head".

Female students joined in the abuse, frequently calling her a c***.

In the end about 27pc of students voted, 69pc of whom voted for impeachment. One Twitter user observed wryly: "Not surprised at record turnout. People love a good stoning." But Ascough's detractors may find theirs is a short-lived victory, as she has emerged with her character, her principles and her dignity intact.

For Katie Ascough, I predict a bright future.

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