Animal rights protesters: don’t ban them, beat them

A leading member of the pro-vivisection group Pro-Test argues that animal rights activists should be defeated through debate, not legal injunctions.

James Panton

Topics Politics

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I am on the organising committee of Pro-Test, the Oxford-based pro-vivisection campaign group. But I oppose the bans on protests by my opponents in animal rights groups. To stop groups such as SPEAK from speaking avoids the challenge of winning the argument for animal research.

The half-built Oxford University Biomedical Research Facility has seldom been out of the news this year. In February Pro-Test organised a 1000-strong demonstration in central Oxford in defence of vivisection. In a climate in which science and scientists are often viewed with suspicion, and young people are derided as apathetic, a student-led demonstration in support of science and progress was inspiring stuff.

Unfortunately, the latest news on the research facility is far from inspiring. Last week Oxford University applied to extend the scope of the existing legal injunction against animal rights activists, the latest step in the university’s attempt to use the law courts to clamp down on animal rights protesters.

In November 2004 the High Court granted the university a permanent injunction banning named animal rights groups and activists from entering a 50-yard exclusion zone around the lab. The injunction also bans activists from protesting or loitering within 50 yards of the premises of contractors, and within 100 yards of the homes of university faculty, staff, contractors, or the shareholders of contractors (1). Under the terms of the injunction, demonstrators are allowed to enter the zone for a weekly protest, so long as the protest is limited to a maximum of 25 people, lasts no more than four hours, and is okayed by the police 24 hours in advance.

The university has recently tried to go further still. Earlier this year it was granted a temporary injunction banning the use of all forms of noise amplification (loudspeakers, megaphones, etc), cameras and video equipment from the weekly anti-vivisection protests. And the reason for last week’s return to the High Court was an application to extend the scope of existing injunctions to cover the entire city. The university argued that since Oxford city centre is full of university premises, then the 50-yard exclusion zone around the laboratory building site is not enough. An extension of the existing injunction would mean that animal rights groups would be banned from demonstrating within the entire City of Oxford, other than on carefully regulated and limited occasions.

Last week, Mr Justice Holland announced that he would postpone judgement on the application until he had visited Oxford in early May to judge the situation (2). Nonetheless, the judge has awarded a further injunction to the university prohibiting animal rights activists from congregating and picketing within 100 yards of the Examination Schools, and other university premises, where students will be sitting final examinations between 18 April and 20 July this year (3).

Whether or not the university wins its case next month, its ongoing attempt to use legal injunctions to beat the animal rights activists, and the apparent willingness of the courts to award them, should concern all those who believe in democracy. This is not simply an issue for those who oppose vivisection. The implication of all these injunctions is that the right to demonstrate is transformed into a privilege granted – and therefore taken away – by the state.

To recap on the history, Oxford has become the centre of animal rights activism in the UK. In January 2004, after contributing to Cambridge University’s decision to abandon its plans for a new neuroscience research centre, the animal rights group SPEAK and a number of its supporters decamped to Oxford. In July 2004, Walter Lilley, the original contractor building the Oxford facility, withdrew from the project. Animal rights activists had written to Montpellier shareholders, Walter Lilley’s parent company, demanding that they sell their stock to avoid ‘reprisals’, resulting in a 19 per cent drop in their share price (4). The result was a lengthy hiatus in the building work while another contractor was sought. Though work has now resumed, the situation remains tense.

Animal rights activists’ activities range from small demonstrations to larger protests, from petty vandalism to an arson attack on a college boathouse, and death threats made against scientists involved in vivisection. Even the 16-year-old instigator of Pro-Test, Laurie Pycroft, has received death threats, and at the beginning of this year the Animal Liberation Front proclaimed that all individuals associated with the university – faculty, staff or students – were legitimate targets of their campaign (5).

Understandably perhaps, very few scientists have been willing to take a public stand on the issue. Many have told me that they are wary even of discussing in public the work they do or the departments in which they work, for fear of who might be listening.

But limiting the rights of animal rights protesters is the wrong way to build the Oxford lab. And it will take us nowhere in the struggle to win the argument for vivisection.

These injunctions will have no impact upon the tiny minority of extremists who are determined to cause or threaten harm to individuals. Injunctions against the entire spectrum of anti-vivisectionists who want to demonstrate in Oxford will do little to deter the tiny violent minority. For all the hype, and for all the nervousness that the extremists’ threats have caused, their attacks have in fact been pretty minimal. Limiting activists’ right to protest can only give moral weight to their arguments.

I have frequently been asked if I am concerned that taking a public pro-vivisection stance is putting me at risk of reprisals from animal rights extremists. In common with my colleagues on the committee, I have argued that the more of us who are prepared to make a stand, the less particular individuals can be intimidated. When 1000 people march through Oxford in support of vivisection, it is difficult to be concerned about a handful of cranks making threats.

The challenge for a group like Pro-Test is to convince the public that animal research is both a scientific necessity and a moral good. The more we focus on the threats of animal rights extremists, the more we turn attention on their cause and away from our own.

The vast majority of animal right protesters are law abiding individuals who pose no threat to anyone – I’ve spotted an old philosophy lecturer of mine on protests, as well as a couple of librarians with placards. What is more, they gain much of their moral authority from the fact that few scientists, university representatives or government figures have been willing publicly to defend animal research.

So why are people supporting the injunction? Because students, faculty and staff who work in the centre of Oxford are tired of the noise and nuisance created by the anti-vivisectionist protests. Science lectures have at times had to be cancelled, and often lecturers and class leaders can barely be heard above the racket created by protesters on the streets outside. Indeed, the injunction passed last week introducing an exclusion zone around the Examination Schools is aimed at preventing disruption for students sitting final examinations. Some individuals have claimed to feel intimidated as they walk or cycle past the protests, or make their way into the science laboratories.

But we have to accept the fact that democracy is at times a noisy business. Politics, arguments and protests can make us feel uncomfortable – and rightly so.

These injunctions deny anti-vivisection protesters one of the most fundamental of democratic rights: the right to demonstrate for what they believe in, and to protest against those who oppose their vision. By making our lives difficult, the antivivisectionists hope to force us to oppose the university’s plans to build the research facility. Their tactics are part of the legitimate armoury of democratic protests. The fact that they might disrupt the day-to-day activities of the university, and might even disrupt the peace for students undergoing examinations, is unfortunate – but it is no argument against them.

To defend their right to protest in no way entails supporting the substance of the anti-vivisectionists’ vision. Their arguments are often wilfully misleading: they rely upon the crassest of emotional tactics, waving placards with pictures of ‘tortured’ bunnies and post-operative primates. And their other arguments are morally dubious: they express a worldview in which the value of human life is no greater than the lives of animals. Indeed, in many cases, the motivation behind their arguments seems less like a love of animals than a hatred of humanity. They demand a halt to all scientific research involving animals, and thus the renunciation of the entire spectrum of medical advances that have been developed over the past century, for ‘practically every present-day protocol for the prevention, treatment, cure and control of disease, pain and suffering is based on knowledge attained through research with lab animals’ (6).

The solution to protests we disagree with and tactics we find a nuisance is to protest ourselves for what we believe is right. It would be a good thing, in my view, if contemporary culture were to become a culture in which antivivisectionists feel uncomfortable making their arguments. It would be a good thing if they were themselves challenged and harangued for their misanthropy. In order to change the public mood, we need to start taking our own arguments into the streets.

Those of us who support vivisection as a positive and moral activity need to make more noise. The more scientists, government, university and its supporters remain silent on this issue, the more we give credence to the argument that vivisection is something we ought to be ashamed of.

The more others are prepared to take a stand on this issue, the less the activities of animal rights campaigners need concern us. Taking a moral stand on vivisection is the only way in which the argument will be won. Perhaps then we can move from defending vivisection against the misanthropes – an argument which ought to have been won a long time ago – on to a more positive debate about the values and principles around which we might organise a more progressive society.

James Panton is a member of the Pro-Test organising committee. He lectures politics at Lady Margaret Hall, University of Oxford. The views expressed in this article are his own, and do not represent Pro-Test policy.

(1) High Court of Justice Order No. HQ04X02793, 10 November 2004 [pdf]

(2) Judge postpones final decision on Oxford Lab injunction, Guardian, 11 April 2006

(3) Oxford University granted another injunction at research site, Contract Journal

(4) Alok Jha, Research lab fights back against protestors, Guardian, November 1 2004

(5) Students will be the next target, Oxford Student, 2 February 2006

(6) See Foundation for Biomedical Research

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Topics Politics


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