Censorship on the OU’s FirstClass conferencing system

In November 2001 Vivien posted information on a few conferences. This is a historical description rather than a verbatim account.


Opting out of Animal Experiments

Many OU students have been deterred from registering with courses with associated residential schools at which animal experimentation takes place because they have ethical, religious or other objections to harming animals.
However, students are permitted to opt out of such experiments. This has been official, but secret, OU policy for years, and motions to OUSA Conference have been passed for many years demanding that the policy be openly (sic) published.
I quote from an earlier OUSA policy B26.4:

'This Association notes the University's assurances that no student's academic assessment will be adversely affected by their non-participation in animal experiments and urges the University to include a formal statement to that effect in future editions of the Student Handbook.' (1991 93M)

and the current versions, B26.1(a) to (f):

This Association...calls upon the University to:

  1. provide formal alternatives for students where such experiments take place and ensure these alternatives are freely available and published in course material,
  2. take steps to reduce the number of animals needed, by replacement with viable alternatives e.g. computer simulation,
  3. ensure that no student's academic assessment is affected by refusal and such a statement is placed in the Student Handbook.

Anyone wanting to take residential school courses but not happy for animals to be killed on their behalf should make this known to the University, quoting from a 1999 report by the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods (ECVAM, an EU advisory body):

'Students wishing to participate in exercises that use animals should be required to opt in, rather than the current opt-out system for students wishing to use alternatives.'

If you are unwilling to watch rather than participate, because your presence would contribute to the animals' deaths, make this clear and request a totally animal-free alternative. Computer simulation programs have been available for years and are used throughout the world. There are also many other educationally-useful alternatives which can be used alone or in combination. Log on to the new website of InterNICHE (International Network of Individuals and Campaigns for Humane Education) at http://www.interniche.internetworking.de for more information. For details of validated alternatives to the caterpillar and rat experiments in SXR204 contact Vivien Pomfrey (see below).

Some students may be unaware of the species used in some residential schools as the information in the 2001/2 Course Descriptions brochure is incomplete. SXR204 uses rats as well as caterpillars, SXR373 uses locusts and SXR 371 uses new-born rabbits.




ECVAM (1999) Alternatives to the Use of Animals in Higher Education - the Report and Recommendations of ECVAM Workshop 33, ECVAM, Ispra, Italy

See Contacts if you would like more information.

Discussions were going well, with students and tutors taking part. Then a message appeared from Colin C. Walker, S204 Course Team Chair on Fri, 23 Nov 2001, saying that he had asked for all messages relating to the subject of Opting Out of Animal Experiments to be deleted from the conference. He went on to say that there was no animal experimentation in S204 and that he believed strongly that this particular forum was an inappropriate place for such discussion. He asked participants to refrain from such discussions in the conference.

Outrage ensued, and Vivien posted further info quoting from the then-current course descriptions brochure:

(under S204) “If you want to count S204 towards an Open University qualification, you may be required to take SXR204 as well.”

(under SXR204) “This course complements the 60-point course S204 Biology: uniformity and diversity, and we strongly recommend that if you are taking that you should take SXR204 in the same year.”

Thus in order to reach students taking SXR204, in the absence of a separate conference for SXR204 the logical place to post information was the S204 conference.

On 26th November Walker replied that he realised that his actions would lay him open to accusations of censorship, and that inappropriate postings to the conference had been removed before. He asserted that the two courses S204 Biology: Uniformity & Diversity and SXR204 Investigative Biology were, despite their codes, completely separate.



O U Student letter

A bit later on, Vivien posted this copy of a letter to OU Student in the Sesame Discussion conference:

Dear OU Student

Some readers of Sesame and OU Student may have noticed changes in the advertisement for Students for Ethical Science (SES) on the Societies page in 2001.

This has resulted from censorship by the Science Faculty, based on allegations that our usual ad was incorrect, defamatory and possibly actionably libellous, which the Society has strongly refuted. The Faculty has also banned our use in the ads of mild, cartoon-type pictures of the animals killed by the OU. Even the word ‘kills’ has been disallowed!

Now a member of OU staff has demanded the removal from a FirstClass conference of messages discussing opting out of animal experiments.

SES believes that a university should be able and willing to permit dissent and to engage in open (sic) discussion of important ethical issues.

If you agree, please write to Head of Biology Professor Michael Stewart and tell him. Letters of support are welcomed by SES, and I can provide more information on request.

Vivien Pomfrey
Membership Secretary/Treasurer
Students for Ethical Science

To her amazement, this too was censored off! What had led to her posting the letter there was a discussion on the conference between tutors who had had their own conference (not an OUSA one, she thinks, but run by their union) closed down – another act of censorship.