Claims that “censorious students” have created a “free speech crisis” in UK universities are “exaggerated” and “clearly out of kilter with reality”, a parliamentary inquiry into freedom of speech has said.
In a wide-ranging report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights published on 27 March, MPs and peers report that the idea that student groups are frequently using “no platforming” and “safe space” policies to stifle free speech has been overblown by media reporting.
This had led to a “perception that the current generation of students are unwilling to hear views which are different to their own,” says the report, Freedom of Speech in Universities.
The inquiry, which conducted eight oral evidence sessions with a total of 34 witnesses and received 109 written submissions, followed claims by former universities minister Jo Johnson ithat “safe space” policies were used by students to restrict debate on campus.
However, the inquiry, led by former Labour cabinet minister Harriet Harman, says that “press accounts of widespread suppression of free speech are clearly out of kilter with reality”.
“A large amount of evidence suggests that the narrative that ‘censorious students’ have created a ‘free speech crisis’ in universities has been exaggerated,” the report says says.
The committee reports that neither of the two most high-profile examples of so-called “no-platforming” – Germaine Greer at Cardiff University and Peter Tatchell at Canterbury Christ Church University – had actually faced any restriction in their ability to speak to students.
“In both these cases, the speaker’s freedom of speech was not curtailed as they were not stopped from giving their talks,” the report says.
The report adds: “Any inhibition on lawful free speech is serious, and there have been such incursions, but we did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested.”
The report also highlights the “contentious” nature of the Free Speech Rankings produced by the Spiked website. For instance, it gave the University of Leeds and Newcastle University “red flag” rankings on account of policies designed to stop antisemitism and transphobia respectively when such policies “could equally be read as merely setting out what was needed to stay within the law”.
The inquiry found there had been some recent cases where free speech had been inhibited but this had been caused – in the case of events at King’s College London, Soas, University of London, the London School of Economics, and Goldsmiths, University of London – by disruptive protests.
Despite dismissing the idea of a “free speech crisis” at UK universities, the inquiry’s report said that there are a number of factors which, according to Ms Harman, amounted to “a problem of inhibition of free speech in universities”.
These include regulatory complexity, incidents of unacceptable intimidating behaviour by protesters intent on preventing free speech and debate, and student unions being overly cautious for fear of breaking the “unduly complicated and cautious” rules laid down by the Charity Commission.
The report says that an independent review of the anti-extremism Prevent policy is necessary to “assess what impact it is having on students and free speech” after hearing how it had an “adverse effect on events with student faith groups”.
It also calls on the Charity Commission, which regulates student unions as registered charities, to review its approach and guidance, and to demonstrate that its actions are proportionate and are adequately explained to student unions and do not unnecessarily limit free speech.
The new Office for Students should also ensure that English university policies proactively secure lawful free speech and are not overly burdensome, it adds.