Free speech limits probed

November 1, 1996

London University's vice chancellor-to-be Graham Zellick is to head a new working party on extremism and intolerance on campus.

Set up by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals, the six-strong group will consider the issues raised for universities by groups which incite racial, religious or political hatred. Its report, which should be published next year, will provide institutions with guidelines on coping with such problems.

The issue has been controversial for universities, caught between a commitment to free expression and the consequences of free speech being taken to extremes.

The National Union of Students policy of "no platform for fascists", propounded as an anti-racist measure in the mid 1970s, was widely attacked as an over-inclusive policy which could infringe the rights of legitimate right-wing speakers. More recent concern has focused on fundamentalist Islamic groups, particularly in some London institutions.

Professor Zellick, an academic lawyer, headed the CVCP's previous inquiry on student discipline, set up after weaknesses in systems for dealing with serious offences were highlighted when a King's College, London student was accused of raping a fellow student.

He said: "This inquiry has no such single origin, but problems of the sort we will be addressing affect various institutions from time to time." He said his own institution, Queen Mary and Westfield College, had so far not been affected, but that with an extremely diverse student body he was concerned to know how he should deal with conflicts.

"I, and I am sure other heads of institutions, will find it extremely valuable to have some clear advice on matters such as when I can and cannot stop meetings. I have no doubt student union executives will be equally interested".

He said he hoped that the central free speech issue "would not be as difficult as it appears in the abstract. We have to ensure freedom of speech on campus - that is fundamental to academic institutions. But it is equally fundamental that it should not deny other people their freedom of speech or subject anyone to harassment, fear, intimidation or anxiety".

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