Guidelines Published to Safeguard Free Speech at Universities

New guidance to protect lawful free speech at universities has been unveiled following claims of censorship on campuses.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has worked with 10 leading organisations to develop a guide for student unions and institutions, providing advice on following the relevant law.

There was input from the National Union of Students, Universities UK, Charity Commission for England and Wales, Office for Students, Independent HE, Guild HE, Commission for Countering Extremism and Home Office.

The 53-page document clarifies the occasions where free speech can lawfully be limited.

EHRC chairman David Isaac said: “The free expression and exchange of different views without persecution or interference goes straight to the heart of our democracy and is a vital part of higher education.

“Holding open, challenging debates rather than silencing the views of those we don’t agree with helps to build tolerance and address prejudice and discrimination.

“Our guidance makes clear that freedom of speech in higher education should be upheld at every opportunity and should only be limited where there are genuine safety concerns or it constitutes unlawful behaviour.”

In 2017, the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights held an inquiry into the state of free speech in UK universities, following concerns over increased bureaucracy and potential self censorship from students on campus.

Sector leaders agreed during a Department for Education summit in May 2018 to create the new guidance which has now been published.

It says:

– Everyone has the right to free speech within the law.

– Higher education providers should always work to widen debate, never to narrow it.

– Any decision about speakers should seek to promote and protect the right to freedom of expression.

– Peaceful protest is a protected form of expression; however, protest should not be allowed to shut down debate or infringe the rights of others.

– Everyone has the right to express and receive views and opinions, including those that may “offend, shock or disturb others”.

– Protecting freedom of expression is a legal requirement for most higher education providers.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “Universities are absolutely committed to promoting and protecting free speech.

“Universities host thousands of events each year, among a student population of more than two million, and the vast majority of these pass without incident.

“Although there is little evidence of a systematic problem of free speech in universities, there is a legal duty on the higher education sector to secure free speech within the law and it is important that universities continually review their approaches.

“This new guidance provides a useful tool that will help universities balance the numerous requirements placed upon them, including student safeguarding responsibilities, and supports their significant efforts to uphold freedom of speech.”

Amatey Doku of the NUS said: “As the guidance rightly notes, the right to freedom of expression is not absolute and that students’ unions and universities must balance that right with other legal duties.

“We were pleased to input into the drafting process in order to help identify where confusion can arise and to dispel some of the common myths around students’ union activity.”

Universities minister Chris Skidmore said: “The guidance provides a clear framework for institutions and student unions to work within, and provides additional clarity on the contentious issue of hate speech.

“It also sets out a clear benchmark of good practice around how these organisations can work together to facilitate and uphold free speech, alongside other requirements such as the Prevent Duty, which requires higher education institutions to safeguard staff and students from being drawn into terrorism.”

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