Ask the panel

June 1, 2007

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"A speaker from the British National Party has been invited to speak on our campus. I feel threatened by this, but the university's initial response has been that in its statutes is an obligation to allow the meeting to proceed. What rights, if any, do I have to challenge this?"

A spokesman for the University and College Union says: "Your university has three duties to reconcile.

"The first is a duty of care to students and staff to provide a safe working environment. The BNP preaches a message of intolerance towards black and ethnic minority, Jewish and gay students and staff, among others.

Some of its leading lights have individual records of violence and BNP activity is often followed by increases in physical attacks on such groups.

For those reasons alone, there is a powerful case that BNP meetings should not be permitted.

"Some universities draw attention to statutes or ordinances enshrining principles of academic freedom. At Bath in May the university suggested an initial decision to allow a BNP speaker (which was later rescinded) should be viewed in light of 'principles of freedom of speech'.

"The UCU will resolutely support academic freedom, but this does not include the right of the BNP to campaign in a way that may infringe the right of others to study and teach in a safe environment.

"Indeed, for the BNP to claim the right to speak on grounds of academic freedom risks discrediting academic freedom itself.

"In any case, university statutes are subject to wider statutory duties on equality and staff-student safety; in this case in particular, to the public-sector duty to promote good relations between staff and students of different races and to promote equality, contained in the Race Relations (Amendment) Act.

"Your university must consider very carefully how these three duties inter-relate. In the UCU's view (and that of other campus unions and the National Union of Students) this should inevitably lead to the visit being cancelled.

"You could approach your union branch to ensure that it reminds the university of these duties, which it should do jointly with the students and other unions.

"Information on the track record of the BNP is available from the Unite Against Fascism website at www.uaf.org.uk , supported by both the UCU and Unison."

A spokesperson for the Equality Challenge Unit says: "The university should refer to the Universities UK/ECU/GuildHE Promoting Good Campus Relations: Dealing with Hate Crimes and Intolerance publication. "In summary, the Education Act 1986 ensures that freedom of speech is provided for visiting speakers within the law. This means that use of a higher education institution's premises cannot be denied due to factors such as an individual or group's views, beliefs, policy or objectives. This freedom is qualified by the need to ensure that visiting speakers respect the law, such as the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. This requires institutions to promote good relations between people of different racial groups. Also that they 'do not engage in behaviour that could constitute a criminal offence' under provisions such as the Public Order Act 1986 and the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. The latter outlaws stirring up hatred on religious grounds through words or behaviour. Institutions must also 'not engage in behaviour that could constitute harassment, a threat to public safety, the likelihood of disorder or crime and interference with the rights and freedoms of others in the campus community'.

"These provisions are in place to ensure that staff and students are able to learn and work in an environment that is free from fear and intimidation. Within this framework, each situation has to be dealt with on an individual basis.

"The institution would have to look at the legal context in relation to particular areas, such as the subject the visiting speaker wishes to discuss, the history of the speaker and of the organisation he or she represents. If any invited party or speaker has a history of inciting racial hatred, the meeting should not take place."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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