The SES Ad Censorship Saga
How it began...
On 27th April 2001 Derek Prior of the OU’s Communications Group wrote to SES saying:
“I have received a number of complaints about your current advertisement in Sesame. They allege that this advertisement is incorrect and defamatory and may be actionably libellous… Professor Stewart...has stated that neither he nor anyone in Bioscience would be prepared to allow animal suffering. If indeed this were the case then their licences would be withdrawn and prosecution would follow…”
We wrote back immediately asking for details of the complaints so that we could comment on them, making it clear that we needed to know which aspects of the ad were being challenged. In the meantime we defended in detail (2 sides of A4) the use of the word ‘suffering‘. Vivien can supply copies of the full refutation but the main points are:
The Home Office does not prohibit the causing of suffering to animals.
We quoted from the OU Science Faculty Animal Ethical Committee’s code of practice where it refers to
‘the minimisation of harmful impacts on animals’.
We quoted from the same document:
'Severity of procedures (i) proposals for use of procedures causing suffering and regulated by the Home Office...mild procedures will normally be accepted; moderate procedures will be scrutinised by the executive sub-committee; severe procedures have rarely been proposed in the OU. Such proposals will be critically scrutinised by the full committee and will only be accepted if there is an extremely strong justification.’
We also quoted from the preamble to the OU Department of Biological Sciences’s annual report to the AEC:
‘..in the OU’s Animal Ethical Committee, the focus of the debate is on balancing any harm or suffering...against...scientific, educational, medical and social benefits...The objective is to minimise the level of suffering.’
(all emphasis is ours)
Professor Stewart, then, was clearly talking nonsense. Either he is ignorant of the facts or he thinks that we are.
By 29th May we had received no reply (a contravention of the Student Charter by the Communications (sic) Group!), and sent a reminder, stressing our right to advertise and our need to know the grounds for any objections in order to redraft the ad.
Diane Seymour of the Communications Group wrote to say that she was ‘at a loss to explain’ why we had not received their letter of 10th May, which she enclosed. It just contained vague references to their unwillingness to accept advertisements without reference to the scientists ‘affected by your claims’ and patronisingly added, “I am sorry that you are disappointed and upset by this position…”
What the letters continued to fail to do was provide details of all the contested aspects of the ad or say whether they were actually rejecting the ad. We wrote back on 1st June and, having had no reply by the 11th, phoned Mr Prior. He said that he had asked Professor Stewart for clarification of the objections but had had no response.
On 30th July Sheila Forman, the advertising manager of Sesame, confirmed that Prof. Stewart would be happy with the advert as long as it said ‘the OU uses…’ rather than ‘kills’, which he considered to be ‘very emotive and also an incorrect description of what we do.’ He also objected to the chick logo on the grounds of it being ‘emotive’. (Perhaps we should have used a more accurate picture of a chick being decapitated.)
We next decided to try replacing ‘kills’ with ‘sacrifices’, as this is the term commonly used in biological research, and included a picture of a rabbit - these are killed for one of the residential schools. What could possibly go wrong this time? Surely it wouldn’t get...
Believe it or not - yes. (Perhaps they were short of loo paper at the Science Faculty.)
On finding that there was no mention of rabbits in the 2001-2 Courses Descriptions, we submitted yet another version - we don’t see why we can’t use pictures of animals. There is no question that the OU kills the species depicted. The Science Faculty have refused to tell us the numbers used in research since 1991, but it was 300 chicks a week then. If there had been a reduction you’d think they’d be pleased to tell us...
STOP PRESS RE AD CENSORSHIP 16th December 2001
OU Head of Biology Professor Michael Stewart has rejected yet another of our advertisements. Prof. Stewart now admits that thousands of animals are actually killed by the OU every year. He had previously insisted that 'kills' be changed to 'uses', and thousands are indeed used but returned to the wild for the Ecology summer school.
However, he is now accepting the word 'sacrifices' (the vivisector's term for 'kills'). Neither Dr Swithenby nor Professor Bassindale is prepared to concede that the ad censorship is unjustified and unacceptable.
Vivien e-mailed Professor Stewart to ask him to explain his allegations about our ads:
Dear Professor Stewart,
I understand that you are the main objector to aspects of the advertisement in Sesame by Students for Ethical Science (SES). Our communication with you on the subject has so far been indirect - via the Communications Group and Sesame Advertising Manager Sheila Forman.
I responded to the initial allegations in great detail, and a copy of the refutation was sent to you. As I have so far received no comments on the points which I raised therein, it would seem reasonable to ask you now for details of your objections. (If you have mislaid my correspondence I shall be glad to send you a copy.)
The initial letter from Derek Prior stated that it was alleged that the first ad to be banned was 'incorrect, defamatory and may be actionably libellous.' I have discussed the matter with a number of people with legal expertise, and they have all stated that these grounds for objection are without foundation both for the original ad and subsequent banned ones.
I understand that other members, including officers, of Students for Ethical Science, have written to you on this matter and on the issue of the OU's animal experimentation, and have received no reply. May I remind you of the OU's Student Charter, which states that correspondence should be replied to within ten university working days. I realise that Dr Swithenby appears to have been elected as a spokesman for the Faculty/Department; however, we would like to hear the views of individual members of staff. I hope that you will take this opportunity to let us know yours, and also answer the questions which we have raised. We are, after all, a society of students, graduates and staff from your own university - an institution of learning.
Professor Stewart refused to answer the questions.
Total vindication at last...
On 3rd December 2002 - 19 months after the initial ban and allegations, SES has received a letter from Mr Prior stating that the original wording can be reinstated, on the basis of the role of a university in promoting debate on difficult and controversial issues'. He added: The Board (the Sesame and Open House Editorial Board) also was mindful of the length of time for which your advertisement had been carried previously in Sesame with no complaint whatsoever.'
The Board has also asked the 'team' (presumably the Communications Group) to review the procedures for dealing with complaints.
We hope that this decision, and the tacit acknowledgement that the OU has acted in a way which was not conducive to promoting debate on difficult and controversial issues, represent a milestone in a movement towards the kind of openness (sic) which students expect from this unique institution.