Image Credit: Freedom of Speech Union
THE FREE SPEECH Union have written to the CEO of the Russell Group Universities to express their discontent over report and support schemes in Russell Group Universities. They argue report and support schemes that allow complaints about ‘micro-aggressions’ do not “take account of their legal duty to uphold free speech and may render them vulnerable to legal challenge, particularly after the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill has become law.” The Report and Support scheme at the University of York was launched in June 2020 after years of campaigning by YUSU.
The tool can be used to report a number of misconduct issues including hate crime and discrimination. It allows for reports to be made with personal details,meaning a member of staff can contact the reporter and discuss further steps. But the tool also allows for individuals to report misconduct anonymously. While this means the specific report cannot be acted upon,the information will be used “to better understand the issues impacting our University community, to monitor trends and inform pro active and preventative work.”
However, the Free Speech Union are concerned that the report and support schemes are an exaggeration of the 2010 Equality Act. They are worried that several ‘report and support schemes’ do not define harassment for students. The Free Speech Union website describes the group as“standing up for the speech rights of its members and campaigns for free speech more widely.” Meanwhile, the University of Cambridge provided examples of microaggressions ,included being dismissive of a student or staff member who discusses race.These microaggressions, the letter argues, are “making it easy for students to make politically-motivated, vexatious and groundless complaints against academics”.
The CEO of Culture Shift, the creator of many ‘report and support’ schemes stated that “‘Report + Support’s primary objective is to ensure all survivors feel supported,which can help play a pivotal role in reducing the impact of such instances on the rest of their lives.”
A Russell Group spokesperson responded to the Free Speech Union’s letter, stating that “our universities have always protected the right to free speech and will continue to do so, while complying fully with laws around harassment and anti-extremism”.
YUSU’s Community & Wellbeing Officer, Carly Precious, responded to the letter’s complaints by saying that, “we understand that this letter was released to the press before being sent to the Russell Group or Vice-Chancellors. As such, we believe it aims to fan the flames of culture wars rather than genuinely advance free speech for all. As a students’ union we aim to create opportunities that compliment a students’ academic journey,forming community connections and expanding a students knowledge. We are proud to have a huge plurality of societies, a range of highly regarded student media and a rich history of student campaigns on a variety of is-sues, exhibiting excellent examples of free speech. This should be done in a manner that protects all students from harassment while still fostering space for exploration and debate. As such,we would hope that an intelligent conversation can be had about how we can celebrate free speech and the sharing of ideas respectfully on cam-pus, while offering the best support to students