The protests must go on
It's a mistake for Oxford University to silence those who oppose animal research.
May 19, 2006
Peter Singer

The first time I took part in a public protest on behalf of animals was in Oxford, in 1971. Together with other graduate students there, I booked the space next to the ancient stone tower of St Michael's Church, in Cornmarket, and exhibited, to shocked passers-by, a stuffed felt veal calf in a stall typical of those then used to house veal calves, and also paper-maché hens in real battery cages.

In those days, few people know what "factory farming" was, or how their veal and eggs were produced. One short-sighted person upbraided us for our cruelty in confining animals like that.

Fortunately, over the past 35 years, such protests, small and large, have persuaded a sizable section of the British public that the way we treat animals is wrong. Veal stalls like those we demonstrated are now illegal in Britain, and are being phased out throughout the European Union. The battery cage, having been condemned by the EU's Scientific Veterinary Committee, is also on the way out, and supermarket chains like Marks and Spencer now refuse to sell eggs produced in that way.

Yet an injunction now being sought by the University of Oxford against animal rights protests would make an attempt to repeat that demonstration, on Cornmarket or almost anywhere in the city of Oxford, illegal, unless it were limited to a single hour, at lunchtime, once a week, and had no more than 12 people present.

Universities have, historically, played a vital role in promoting freedom of thought and expression and providing a safe haven for dissent. Ironically, it was at Oxford University that, in the early 1970s, a group of graduate students and young researchers developed new and radical ideas about the moral status of animals.

The list of books written by those who were in Oxford then is like a bibliography of the central texts of the modern animal movement. It includes Animals, Men and Morals, edited by Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris; Victims of Science, by Richard Ryder; Animal Rights: A Christian Assessment by Andrew Linzey, The Moral Status of Animals by Stephen Clark, and my own Animal Liberation.

In many respects, society has moved closer to the ideas we put forward more than thirty years ago. Instead of being proud of its role in sparking the modern animal rights movement, however, Oxford University appears to be turning its back on that particular distinction. It would rather, it seems, be known for the legal precedents it establishes in restricting the right to protest than for the role its members played in extending ethical concern beyond the boundary of our species.

In any large protest movement there are, of course, a few who step over the moral line, important in a democracy, between attempting to persuade, or to demonstrate opposition to something seen as deeply wrong, and attempting to intimidate or coerce those one is unable to win over to one's own side.

In a democracy, those who advocate change can only achieve their goals by winning over the majority. They may legitimately show the strength of their opposition by acts of non-violent civil disobedience, but coercion and intimidation, even when used in a good cause, invite a similar response, and can ultimately lead to an escalation of violence that may threaten the foundations of democracy.

It is reasonable for members of the university to wish to be able to work in peace, undisturbed by megaphones. But it is a mistake for the university to seek to quash dissent, anywhere in the City of Oxford, to the research it conducts on animals. By attempting to do so, it departs from its own best traditions, and surely will bring out in support of the defenders of animals, not only those who oppose the building of its new laboratory, but all who value free speech and civil liberties.