The Equality and Human Rights Commission has collaborated with other organisations in the Education sector to improve guidance to uphold freedom of expression at UK universities. This new guidance was announced by ten leading organisations on 2 February, including: the National Union of Students, Universities UK, Charity Commission for England and Wales and the Commission for Countering Extremism and Home Office.
This is the first time that the legal rights and obligations surrounding free speech have been clearly defined, with the hope that this will empower student unions, student groups and individuals to be able to stand up for free speech. It clarifies in what occasions free speech can be limited lawfully with the aim of allowing free speech to flourish on campus.
Universities Minister, Chris Skidmore, said on these guidelines: “Free speech is a value integral to the independence and innovation that embodies the higher education sector in the UK, fuelling academic thought and challenging injustice. This guidance is a symbol of the commitment from across the sector to protecting freedom of speech.
“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.”
This guidance comes soon after the debate was reignited with the outcry from Warwick students at the University of Warwick for lessening the punishments for those involved in a group chat that threatened rape and included racially offensive language. Though this is not an isolated incident, as in recent weeks, Peter Hitchens’s talk at the University of Portsmouth was cancelled due to perceived conflicts with the students’ union’s LGBTQ+ month. Steve Bannon’s appearance at Oxford University was protested, with some protesters attempting to prevent others from attending the talk. On 11 February, a student was banned from speaking in a debate about free speech at the University of Bristol due to security concerns after allegations of transphobia.
The issue of no-platforming has become a controversial one. The NUS has a “no-platform” policy, preventing a number of racist and fascist organisations from speaking. Though this does not extend to student societies, if a society wishes to invite a blacklisted speaker, and there is an attempt to stop them, then it is down to the University to make a final decision. Many of the issues arise from universities and student unions attempting to protect free speech while concerns about protests, and sometimes counter-protests, possibly spark violence. The guidance seeks to tread the line between these two potential issues – complying with both the protection of free speech and the public sector equality duty which aims to eliminate harassment and discrimination.
The NUS believe that the problem of freedom of speech at universities are exaggerated with the president of the National Union of Students, Shakira Martin, saying in 2017: “The media is always flipping gassed up on ‘freedom’ of
speech, ‘freedom’ of speech. This conversation is annoying. It’s a distraction.” However, analysis by Spiked magazine, with support from the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, suggests that censorship of campuses has steadily risen over the past few years, with a rise in guest speakers being denied due to their opinions on controversial topics. The 2018 Free Speech University Rankings found that only six universities had no restrictions on free speech.