On the 27th of October, Katie Ascough was impeached from her position as President of UCD Students’ Union, and the coverage of the impeachment referendum and its aftermath by national news sources has shown an obvious bias towards the No side of the campaign. What has resulted is the Irish Pro-Life campaign using this bias to promote an image of themselves as victims of a fictional war against freedom of speech, with pieces by the likes of David Quinn and Maria Steen of the Iona Institute appearing in national newspapers, Ascough being interviewed extensively, and Ascough herself being given an op-ed in the Irish Times.
The Yes campaign in UCD called for the referendum after the former SU President went against the pro-choice mandate of the SU, removing abortion information from the Winging It in UCD handbook. In the weeks that followed, the student body learned of several other ways in which Ascough went against the SU’s mandate. The referendum went ahead and the SU president was democratically impeached, just as she was democratically elected in March.
In the numerous articles following the impeachment, it has been clear that Katie Ascough’s opinions and quotes are being framed as more prominent than anyone else’s. She has had several personal interviews with national figures, where no one from the Yes side has been present in order to balance the arguments, while there is almost always someone from the pro-life side present whenever a pro-choice figure appears to speak on the issue. Where students from the Yes campaign are quoted or interviewed, it has tended to be relegated to the bottom of the article or the end of the video. Even within the headlines, Ascough is consistently quoted.
According to this coverage, the referendum was wholly about the former SU President’s views; her pro-life stance in particular. Two quotes of Ascough’s that have appeared a lot are ones lamenting that her impeachment was “a sad day for our university” and that “universities should be a place for freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and freedom of association … Respect for others with different beliefs are critical to debate and intellectual freedom on campus.” Both quotes come from Ascough’s speech shortly after the referendum went through.
The idea here is that the impeachment referendum was a part of the war against free speech.
The idea here is that the impeachment referendum was a part of the war against free speech. To be clear, the referendum was run democratically after Ascough censored information in a student handbook, and a person in a position of political power who represented a group of students was removed from that position after she acted against their interests. Ascough is entitled to her own views. However, she was impeached because she allowed these views to affect her role as president of a pro-choice student union.
What is also consistently brought up is that she was liable to a personal criminal conviction if the information had been published. In this argument she is painted as a victim who fought against peer pressure to do what was legally right. What is not acknowledged here is how incredibly unlikely it was for her to have been convicted, and the fact that the information that was published in the new editions of Winging It in UCD was still illegal.
In this argument she is painted as a victim who fought against peer pressure to do what was legally right.
It has also been acknowledged by several sources that both sides of the campaign received death threats and abuse during the campaign. However, many other sources have ignored that the Yes campaign was also targeted. The ones that did acknowledge this fact once again relegated this information to the end of the article, a seemingly innocuous act that nevertheless propagates the claim that the referendum was a bullying tactic
With so many articles bringing up her views as the source of the impeachment referendum, it is noteworthy that none of them mention her views on marriage equality and the rights of the LGBT+ community. This was not the platform the Yes campaign ran on, but it is a significant reason as to why many students voted for her impeachment. Considering all of this talk of freedom of speech, it is interesting to see how several important facets of this referendum have been wilfully ignored by national media coverage.
The question is, what does this mean for the Repeal the Eighth movement? The Pro-Life campaign has come out of this impeachment looking, to many people, like the victims of censorship and intolerance. National media coverage has had a direct role in promoting the pro-life side by solely telling Ascough’s side of the story and giving the microphone to her supporters and those in her camp, without also capturing the voices of the Yes campaign within UCD. They are successfully making this impeachment look like it was the result of trying to silence those who think differently from the majority, and this is a difficult image to dismantle. Ultimately, this is a concern going forward into the referendum this coming May.