UK universities and students back clearer guidance on free speech

Minister plans to simplify ‘dizzying variety’ of rules on freedom of expression

May 3, 2018
Sam Gyimah

University and student leaders have welcomed the UK government’s plan to simplify the guidance on free speech on campuses.

As he hosted a behind-closed-doors summit on the issue, Sam Gyimah, the universities minister, said that the “dizzying variety” of rules on who can be invited to speak at higher education institutions and what they can say was “acting as a brake on legal free speech”.

Attendees at the event included organisations that have existing guidance on free speech, including Universities UK, the Charity Commission, and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.

The move to introduce new guidance, the government’s first intervention on campus free speech since 1986, comes amid continuing concern about the impact of “safe space” and “no platform” policies.

It also reflects a recommendation made by the Joint Committee on Human Rights in its report on the issue, which was published in March – although the panel found that claims that “censorious students” had created a “free speech crisis” in UK universities were “exaggerated” and “clearly out of kilter with reality”.

Mr Gyimah said that a society “in which people feel they have a legitimate right to stop someone expressing their views on campus simply because they are unfashionable or unpopular is rather chilling”.

“There is a risk that overzealous interpretation of a dizzying variety of rules is acting as a brake on legal free speech on campus,” Mr Gyimah said. “That is why I am bringing together leaders from across the higher education sector to clarify the rules and regulations around speakers and events to prevent bureaucrats or wreckers on campus from exploiting gaps for their own ends.”

Alistair Jarvis, UUK’s chief executive, said that universities were “committed to promoting and protecting free speech within the law”.

“As the Joint Committee on Human Rights recently found, there is no systematic problem with free speech in universities, but current advice can be strengthened,” he said. “We welcome discussions with government and the National Union of Students on how this can be done.”

Amatey Doku, the NUS’ vice-president (higher education), said that there was “a great deal of confusion” over the state of free speech on campus.

“That institutions and students’ unions are required to juggle multiple, often conflicting, regulatory responsibilities can only further add to this confusion,” he said. “We will therefore look forward to contributing to the creation of new guidance – to provide much-needed clarity for the sector, but also to ensure that any obligations to free speech are balanced with an institution’s responsibility to keep their students safe from harm.”

Mr Doku added: “We remain committed to protecting free speech, and therefore hope that an urgent review into the chilling effect of the Prevent duty, as recommended by the JCHR report, will be enacted as part of this process.”

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