Freedom of Speech at Universities

Joint Committee on Human Rights publishes report on Freedom of Speech in Universities

The Joint Committee on Human Rights, of which Fiona Bruce, MP for Congleton, and Jeremy Lefroy, MP for Stafford, are both members, has published a report into free speech in universities, highlighting serious concerns over barriers to free speech.

Fiona Bruce MP said:

“Our cross-party Parliamentary committee found very concerning evidence of free speech being inhibited in a number of ways at universities. Examples include through unnecessarily complex application procedures to students to receive consent to invite speakers (such as speakers being required to submit an outline of their speech in advance), or as a result of unclear guidance around the Prevent legislation (designed to prevent terrorism) or, surprisingly, restrictive guidelines on student unions from the Charity Commission. It is astonishing, for example, that the Charity Commission can say in their official guidelines that because student unions are registered charities they should not engage in topics such as political prisoners imprisoned abroad, or environmental issues such as whaling.

“As our Committee says this is very concerning because universities of all places should be somewhere ideas can be explored and are a preparation for participation in wider society where free speech is so important to protect and preserve democracy.

“Evidence we received from a wide range of witnesses highlighted that at universities across the country there are overly-burdensome procedures in place for student groups to get consent to hold events, and students with minority views feel inhibited from speaking out for fear of being seen as extremist – the so-called “chilling effect”. The expression of unpopular or minority views, even if they cause offence to others at times, is not unlawful. University authorities have a legal duty to secure free speech at universities and need to do more to protect and promote this. Additionally, the new Office for Students, which comes into effect on 1st April this year, needs to be vigilant in ensuring that individuals are held to account to secure free speech on campuses, in accordance with their legal duty under the Education Act.

“We heard from the Alliance of Pro-Life Students, who told us that across the country they had difficulties getting stalls at Freshers’ Fayres. One student union passed a motion resolving never to provide a platform for pro-life groups; they found it difficult to get consent to organise meetings due to complex application processes and difficulties getting registered as a student organisation. We heard similar concerns expressed by Jewish, humanist, and other minority groups – so, for example, a group proposing to host an event with a Syrian refugee ultimately decided to cancel their event, for fear of falling foul of Prevent regulations.”

Jeremy Lefroy MP said:

“This is a very thorough report, which we hope will be useful for university authorities to help them secure and promote free speech.”

The Committee has published its own guidance for Universities and students organising events, empowering them to protect and promote this vital human right.

The Committee found that there are a number of factors which actively limit free speech in universities. These include the concept of ‘safe spaces’, which the Committee found is particularly unhelpful in that it has the potential to promote intolerance of certain legitimate views or opinions, particularly if they conflict with mainstream student policies or attitudes. The Committee received clear evidence that this is causing students to ‘self-censor’ on campus – the opposite of the promotion of free speech, which university authorities have a legal duty to ensure, including on student union premises.

As part of the report, the Committee has recommended a number of solutions including requiring universities to be more vigilant about this, holding an independent review of the Prevent policy, urging the Government to better define ‘extremism’, reviewing of Charity Commission guidance, direction for the Office for Students and guidance for how students should act to exercise their freedom of speech in free and open debate.

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