Hate has no place here

The sector must consider the law, confront its own prejudices, update its codes and banish the extremists from campus, says Ruth Deech

March 22, 2012

Credit: Miles Cole

Now that a larger proportion of young people enter higher education, the campus community has come to mirror the outside world, with all its aspirations and prejudices. The diverse student population is trying out new ideas and meeting others quite unlike themselves, often for the first time. Universities should be the place where peaceful dialogue and the exchange of views can take place; however, to some extent our campuses have become a battleground for beliefs and a place of struggle between academic freedom and freedom of speech on the one side, and extremism and hate incidents on the other. How do we balance the two?

In the 1980s, a number of right-wing speakers were heckled on campus and were the target of the students' unions' "no platform" policy. As a response, the Education (No 2) Act 1986 required universities to secure freedom of speech within the law for members and visitors. Ironically, this freedom is now being used to persuade vice-chancellors and unions to give platforms to racists and hate-mongers. Preachers who have called for the death penalty for gays, the subjugation of women and hatred of all Jews find a platform. There have also been anti-Semitic incidents directed at Jewish students, such as assaults, swastika graffiti and "kill the Jews" slogans. Forty-two per cent of Jewish students witnessed or experienced anti-Semitism on campus last year, but it seems the universities are not tackling these incidents as they would if other minorities were targeted in the same way. Some university administrators seem to be ignorant of the law or have not updated their codes on visiting speakers for decades. They take refuge behind claims of freedom of speech and academic freedom (which by law is guaranteed to the staff of universities, not speakers who promote discrimination and untruths).

Universities need to consider the relevant legislation that places limits on freedom of speech: the Equality Act 2010, the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Terrorism Acts. Like it or not, there is no absolute freedom of speech in English law, otherwise the tactics of lies and shouting down would drown out the truth and deny those same freedoms to others. The National Union of Students, the Equality Challenge Unit and the Union of Jewish Students have all published guidance on visiting speakers and hate incidents, with too little effect.

The lecturers, the very people towards whom it might be expected that troubled students would turn, are also part of the problem. The University and College Union has been reported to the Equality and Human Rights Commission for institutional anti-Semitism and is being sued by one of its Jewish members over the issue. The UCU has ignored the generally accepted right of the victim to define discrimination by resolving to reject the internationally accepted working definition of anti-Semitism. This has had the effect of allowing the union to ignore complaints of race hatred. The UCU has offended Jews and others among its ranks by claiming to be anti-Zionist rather than anti-Semitic. While Syrians die at the hands of their own state, Egyptian universities are interfered with by their government, Tunisian institutions are closed and female Saudi students are segregated and beaten during protests, there has never been, and is not now, any reaction from the UCU by way of boycott or protest against those countries. The UCU has only ever targeted one country - Israel - for such treatment.

The situation could be improved if the universities took more seriously their statutory duties to promote racial harmony on campus and prevent unwanted conduct. They need to update their codes on visiting speakers to take account of recent legislation. They should consider the history of speakers when carrying out the required risk assessments and act promptly when a student complains of verbal or physical assault. Students must have confidence in institutional reporting systems. While universities should enjoy and celebrate their individual characteristics, their systems for reporting and then tackling hate speech must be consistent, reliable and easy to access.

It is important in all this to remember that in the face of campus hate, there will always be those pursuing tolerance. I am a trustee of the Coexistence Trust, established in 2005 to fight Islamophobia and anti-Semitism on campus and to bring Muslim and Jewish students together to share common concerns and build networks of trust and understanding. It has a scheme of campus ambassadors - students who are trained in conflict resolution and interfaith and intercommunal dialogue. And it sponsors a campus "faithhub" to enable students to exchange ideas. This is the way forward.

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