Is Government policy on free speech in universities coherent?

21 November 2017

Joint Committee on Human Rights launches inquiry into freedom of speech in Universities. The Committee is accepting written submissions.

Statutory duty

Is Government policy on free speech in universities coherent? Universities have a statutory duty to ensure free speech.

The Universities Minister, Jo Johnson, has recently called on the Office for Students, which will take on regulatory responsibility for the sector on 1 April 2018, to champion free speech in universities.

Freedom of speech is canvassed as one of the core Public Interest principles to be secured by that office.

In contrast, the Prevent Duty Guidance for Higher Education indicates not only that Higher Education Institutions should not provide platforms for those encouraging terrorism or inviting support for a proscribed organisation (both illegal) but that:

11. Furthermore, when deciding whether or not to host a particular speaker, RHEBs [Relevant Higher Education Bodies] should consider carefully whether the views being expressed, or likely to be expressed, constitute extremist views that risk drawing people into terrorism or are shared by terrorist groups.

In these circumstances the event should not be allowed to proceed except where RHEBs are entirely convinced that such risk can be fully mitigated without cancellation of the event.

Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights provides that

"Everyone has the right to freedom of expression.

This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers." 

The right is not absolute and can be restricted for a number of reasons, including national security, public safety, the prevention of disorder or crime, or the protection of the reputation and rights of others.

Chair's comments

"Everyone agrees that freedom of speech is a vital part of a free society. 

But not everyone agrees where its boundaries are. And universities are in the front line - needing to uphold free speech but duty bound to stop radicalisation or discrimination.

Some protest that government attempts to prevent Islamic radicalisation are an unjustified stifling of free speech.

Others say it's necessary to keep us safe.  And many think it's just unclear.

Should student societies have the freedoms to choose what they do, or should university authorities police their activities. 

Should universities be left to get on with it? Or should the government monitor how they protect free speech on campus?

Our inquiry will consider these and many other questions, and we will be listening to a wide range of views from individuals and organisations with direct experience of the issue."

Get involved

The Joint Committee on Human Rights invites written evidence to be submitted by 20 December 2017 on:

  • Whether Government policy on free speech in universities is coherent
  • Taken together, do the Prevent duty and the statutory duty to ensure free speech appropriately balance Convention rights and public interest considerations?
  • The role of the Office for Students in ensuring freedom of speech
  • University authorities have a statutory duty to secure freedom of speech, including on student union premises. Student unions say they are private bodies and have a right to refuse speakers. Should university authorities have responsibility for the activities of their student unions? If so, to what extent?
  • Is there concrete evidence that free speech is being suppressed in universities? Who should be responsible for monitoring this?
  • If there is a problem, in what ways is free speech being suppressed? By whom? What are the causes? Is any problem increasing?

Submissions should be no more than 1,500 words. 

Send a written submission

As part of a scheme to encourage paperless working and maximise efficiency there is a web portal for online submissions of written evidence.

Written submissions for this inquiry should therefore be sent via:

Further information

Image: iStockphoto

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