Reality check: universities and free speech

Universities have told the BBC that all is well as far as free speech is concerned. Then again, they would say that, wouldn’t they? argue Dennis Hayes and Bryn Harris 

October 28, 2018
Freedom of speech
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A report from the BBC’s fact checking series, Reality Check, dared to ask the question “universities: is free speech under threat?”. 

The writers claimed that a freedom of information request sent to 120 universities revealed that, since 2010, only six speakers have been banned after complaints. Sixteen universities, we are told, have received complaints about speakers in that period and nine events have been cancelled. Universities UK also expressed a sanguine view of free speech, noting that universities organise thousands of events every year that pass off without incident. 

The reporters are aware that the numbers of speakers banned are small but that some critics think that there could be a “big problem”. They say that the figures are not exhaustive, adding that “they may not capture more informal complaints”.

This is a sensible caveat by the reporters, and is to be welcomed. However the quantitative method adopted by Reality Check virtually guaranteed that they would fail to find evidence of a problem that we and many others believe is real and pressing.  

The problem is that universities and students’ unions systemically strike the balance against freedom of speech and in favour of questionable notions of student welfare. If we want to take a useful look at this problem, we will have to scrutinise the quality of decisions made by unions and universities. Were they fair? Were they reasonable? 


The reality check needed for this “reality check” is that the views of universities and their representative body should not be given undue weight, especially at a time when new free speech guidance is being drafted by the Office for Students. 

It is important to say that they are not lying – they simply do not see when they are undermining free speech. When they impose values and codes of behaviour on staff and students, a breach of them can lead to formal and informal disciplinary acts. 

Many speakers are indeed invited to universities but they are for the most part uncontroversial speakers. A better question to ask of universities and the National Union of Students is not who they banned but “which controversial speakers did you invite?”. 

The message that a few bans sends out is “don’t invite controversial speakers”. We believe that this is not just because of the fear of protests and violence.  We are among those critics who believe that universities avoid inviting speakers because they fear giving emotional offence to students. 

There is a problem on many campuses. That is why we are working with student groups across the UK that are making freedom of speech happen on our campuses. These include the Aberdeen Life Ethics Society, a pro-life group seeking to promote open-minded, pluralistic debate about the ethics of abortion. 

It has been denied affiliation with the Aberdeen University Students’ Association, and thus vital access to funds and premises.

Or take the Liberate the Debate (LtD) society at the University of Sussex, which recently held a talk by Rupert Soames, CEO of Serco, which manages Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre. Threats of disruption, at this and previous LtD events, imposed potentially unsustainable security costs on the society – money that may well be wasted if the protestors succeed in getting the talk canned altogether. In many cases the cost of event security is being transferred to student societies – thus imposing on them a financial obligation to facilitate free speech, rather than the union or the university.

There is another reason to be vigilant for any lapses in free speech: while those student officers responsible for restrictive policies that chill free speech are few, they are influential and could in the future be considerably more so, especially if they transition into local or Westminster politics. We cannot let even minor lapses go, because their consequences could sound the death knell for free speech in wider society. 

We believe in taking an open mind to both the successes and setbacks of campus free speech. Doing so could result in sharing overlapping concerns expressed by those who take a politicised, exaggerated view of campus free speech. We must be fearless in identifying failures to protect free speech, and we must be indifferent to the fact that doing so could mean sharing the concerns of the right-wing press about “snowflakes”, or of the left-wing press about the Prevent strategy. The defence of free speech is too serious an issue for anyone to worry about the company they keep.

For these reasons, Academics for Academic Freedom and Speakers’ Corner Trust have partnered up to build a network of student free speech societies and debating groups. 

The purpose of the Free Speech Network is to get information from the coalface about what is happening on our campuses, to advise students how to navigate restrictive policies imposed by universities, and to put them in touch with sympathetic academics who can help. We believe that a united front can advocate more powerfully for the free, fair debate that makes a university degree an experience worth having (and, indeed, worth paying for).

So far, groups at Sussex, Derby, Bristol, Kent and Aberdeen, Soas and Leeds Beckett University have joined the network.

We are emphatically not setting out to moan or scaremonger. We want to know about the good things that are happening on campus – the talks that do go ahead, the students’ unions that cooperate rather than quash – as well as the restrictions.

This is the front line of the fight for freedom of speech in the UK. The university campus is where free thinking will either thrive or falter. If you would like to join the Free Speech Network, or find out more, please get in touch.

Bryn Harris is director of the Speakers’ Corner Trust and Dennis Hayes is professor of education at the University of Derby and director of Academics For Academic Freedom.

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