“Deeply objectionable” rules imposed by the Charity Commission on student unions are stifling free speech on UK campuses rather than overly sensitive students, Jacob Rees-Mogg has claimed.
The Conservative MP, who was involved in a scuffle with protesters at a student event in Bristol last week, told a hearing of the Joint Human Rights Committee on free speech in universities that he did not believe students wanted to close down debate on campus or avoid inviting controversial speakers.
Instead, Mr Rees-Mogg told the select committee on 7 February that his experience as a trustee of the Oxford Union – which, like student unions, is registered as a charity and therefore falls under the remit of the Charity Commission – had highlighted the regulator’s intrusive role in university life.
“We have regular discussions at our meetings about freedom of speech because the Charity Commission can get complaints about the people who are invited,” said Mr Rees-Mogg on the regulator’s rules, which are designed to ensure that charities remain politically neutral.
However, the select committee has questioned whether its guidance and rules around inviting “controversial” speakers had become too onerous and duplicates roles now held by the Office for Students.
“I am much more worried about the Charity Commission saying it is against [our] charitable objective to invite somebody with controversial views than I am by students,” said Mr Rees-Mogg, who said that “students like to push the boundaries of free speech” by inviting controversial speakers and it is “other people who try to stop it”.
The high-profile Brexit supporter was quizzed extensively about his confrontation with a small group of masked protesters during an evening lecture he was giving at the University of West of England on 2 February.
The protesters – who are not believed to have been students – were ejected after interrupting the event, although some have claimed that a brief altercation involving Mr Rees-Mogg was an example of left-wing students attempting to no platform a right-wing speaker over his views. Earlier in the hearing on 7 February, universities minister Sam Gyimah branded the protesters “wreckers” who wanted to “disrupt, restrict and annoy other students”, while ex-universities minister Jo Johnson has previously called them “balaclava-wearing thugs” who were “another repugnant example of threats to freedom of speech on campus”.
However, Mr Rees-Mogg said that TV footage made the incident seem “much more dramatic than it seemed at the time”. “Other than the masks, it was an entirely legitimate protest,” he said, adding that it “got a bit pushy but not in a serious way”.
Mr Rees-Mogg said he was more concerned by the online abuse faced by female MPs and what he called the “deeply objectionable” interference by the Charity Commission regarding external speakers, which required trustees of the Oxford Union to be informed about proposed guests.
“I do not think this is the Charity Commission’s business,” he said, adding that it appeared to interfere with the “sacrosanct principle” that the union’s president could invite whoever they wish to speak.
Such rules encouraged union to self-censor as there is a “natural tendency of regulated people to go along with what the regulator is asking for”, said Mr Rees-Mogg, who said that the cost of policing events involving controversial speakers could also cause some organisations to play it safe.
Universities would begin to ask if “they really want to spend money week in, week out, protecting events that two years ago they did not need security for”, he said.
“If the balance goes the wrong way, students will not invite people because [the costs] will become too onerous,” he said.
Afterwards, the Charity Commission said its role had been set by parliament and is to “regulate charities in line with the existing law”.
“Charities with educational purposes, such as student unions, may further their purposes by arranging events and meetings involving speakers and encouraging debate,” said a spokeswoman. “This is legitimate, provided that their trustees are able to demonstrate that doing so furthers their charitable purposes and that they have managed associated risks in accordance with their duties.”
Charity trustees should also ensure that, where relevant, they have "appropriate safeguarding policies in place to protect those that come into contact with their charity from harm”, the commission added, stating that, while a charity must be ensure its activities are neither illegal or in breach of equality or human rights law, “beyond this, trustees have broad discretion as to how they fulfil their duties”.