The University of Cape Town will be taking legal advice about the way a student leader was treated over her views on sexual orientation‚ including vandalism of her office and being expelled from the Student Representative Council (SRC).
While reaffirming the university’s commitment to freedom of expression and to protecting the rights of the lesbian‚ gay‚ bisexual‚ transgender‚ queer‚ intersex and asexual (LGBTQIA+) community‚ UCT vice chancellor Max Price said debate should not spill over into violence.
“Universities in particular should be safe spaces in which differences of opinion can be asserted and debated‚” he said.
Over the past three weeks‚ “a conflict” has erupted within UCT’s SRC and student body‚ triggered by a post that Zizipho Pae‚ the vice president external of the SRC‚ put on her personal Facebook page‚ he said in a statement.
Pae was reacting to the legalisation of same-sex marriages in the USA. Her message was: “We are institutionalising and normalising sin! Sin. May God have mercy on us“.
This prompted a group of students who call themselves UCT Queer Revolution to lodge a formal complaint against Pae‚ alleging that she had breached the UCT Student Code of Conduct. Last week‚ the UCT legal counsellor for student discipline found that Pae’s Facebook statement was not considered a basis for a charge of a breach of the Student Code of Conduct.
The SRC‚ however‚ decided to expel Pae from the SRC although no formal notification was sent to Pae‚ who then appealed to the vice-chancellor’s office.
Price said he had asked the SRC “to clarify what decisions they have taken‚ to explain the process that was followed and the grounds for making the decisions they have taken”.
“I intend to take expert legal opinion on the SRC’s actions‚ in light of the SRC’s constitution.”
Explaining his stance‚ he said: “We recognise that there are strong feelings on both sides of this conflict‚ mirroring differences of opinion and values that exist in our country‚ and on our continent‚ more widely”.
“At the same time‚ we strongly affirm the rights of members of the UCT community to express their sincerely held views and beliefs.”
He referred to a 1998 Constitutional Court ruling on religious beliefs‚ which stated “those persons who for reasons of religious belief disagree with or condemn homosexual conduct are free to hold and articulate such beliefs“. This is especially so when a religious belief is articulated in a way that is not intended to insult‚ harm or discriminate‚ and if there is no incitement to taking harmful action against others.
“On our reading‚ Ms Pae’s Facebook post was an expression of her sincerely held religious belief‚ rather than an intervention to insult or hurt those with whom she disagrees.”
Price added: “The issue of LGBTQIA+ rights is one on which emotions run high. There is good reason for this as LGBTQIA+ communities have suffered inexcusable discrimination. Furthermore‚ those who express views which contradict the values of UCT‚ and which offend many of their fellow students and staff‚ must anticipate vigorous reaction and even protest. But this should to be done within an environment that is free from intimidation and harm. We therefore condemn the invasion and vandalism of Ms Pae’s SRC office and other actions that exceed the bounds of legitimate debate and protest”.
He appealed to the university staff and students to “do everything in our capacity to respect the differences amongst ourselves‚ whatever those might be”.
This‚ Price said‚ meant that while opinions are shared honestly and robustly‚ other people’s views should be listened to with respect and sensitivity.