For the past four months the Joint Committee on Human Rights has been pondering that staple of the newspaper columnist – free speech in universities.
The argument is well rehearsed by now. Safe spaces and snowflake students have built a reinforced echo chamber guarded by trigger warnings and no platformings, which is stifling anything but the most politically correct of opinions and conversations.
This argument – propped up by the laughable Spiked Free Speech University Rankings (automatic amber warning if you have a harassment policy) – may not accurately reflect the real status of free speech in modern universities, but the media war has been lost on this front.
As the manager of Soas Students’ Union – once named the most political students’ union in the country courtesy of an equally spurious league table by Which? – I welcomed the interest of the committee and its recent findings.
For the past 20 years, I have been booking rooms for our 250 societies with very few issues. Research by colleagues confirms other unions are also not banning meetings or no platforming on an industrial scale. There may be an issue regarding protest and the balancing of rights and interests between different political viewpoints, but this is not new.
Despite a turnout in the first evidence session from Spiked-affiliated pundits, the latter sessions and written evidence uncovered other threats to freedom of speech. These arose not from snowflake students, but from government initiatives and regulation, namely the Prevent duty and the regulation of students’ unions by the Charity Commission.
Students’ unions are charities and ones which are separate to their parent institution. As such, we are not subject to the anti-terrorist Prevent duty in the same way universities are. Yet most of us rely on funding from our institutions and end up booking space for our society meetings within their buildings, so there cannot help but be a symbiotic relationship between us and them. Many unions – mine in particular – regard Prevent as a racist and Islamophobic policy. Even if that is not the case, the guidance around what is and isn’t extremist speech is often unclear.
The Joint Committee rightly identified the Prevent policy and its subtext of getting universities to report their own students as damaging free speech, particularly around faith groups.
Our trustees have been written to five times by the Charity Commission in the past two years regarding meetings held by our societies. In the most recent letter, in November, it asked us to send it the complete booking information and risk assessments of all the meetings held by our Islamic Society and our Palestine Society.
We supplied this correspondence as evidence to the Joint Committee, which seemed concerned about how onerous the process of room booking for societies had become. This has partially been forced by universities dealing with what they believe are their Prevent duties.
However, the outcome of the Charity Commission letters to our trustees – who are predominantly students – has been to complicate our room-booking process, as well as the suggestion from the commission that certain kinds of meetings may be inappropriate for us as charities. It feels as though they want trustees to be micromanaging the activities of their societies – and perhaps even not allowing certain controversial meetings.
So I am pleased to see the inquiry’s suggestion to the Charity Commission that it review its approach to regulating students’ unions. Our current process now requires any society that wants to book a room to complete a form with at least 12 detailed questions. If a society is hosting an external speaker, it needs to supply a specific risk assessment.
The Joint Committee rightly identified that this was a threat to free speech, creating a level of red tape that could put organisers off. Our societies put on about 2,500 events last year and needed to refer four for further investigation. As the number of referrals amounts to 0.2 per cent of meetings, none of which ended up being problematic, the resource and time spent on this is nonsensical from a risk management point of view.
If you look at the sector as a whole, students’ unions in the UK are putting on about 100,000 events a year and have been doing so for the past 50 years, mostly without box-ticking regulation. Instead, they used the skills of the staff in these organisations to balance conflicting rights and viewpoints.
I will do my bit in trying to ensure that student protest does not prevent the lawful exercise of freedom of speech. We are proud at Soas, University of London and the union of our commitment to free speech and have therefore found the ongoing correspondence with the Charity Commission troubling.
Members of the committee raised on a number of occasions questions about their own political activity as students, particularly around the Anti-Apartheid Movement, actions that might today be deemed outside current charity guidance. Any new guidance must therefore be attuned to the importance to civil society of how these kinds of campaigns are often incubated in our students’ unions.
Ironically, the main driver for questioning controversial speakers in our correspondence from the Charity Commission has been the duty for trustees to protect the reputation of Soas Students’ Union as a charity. Nothing would damage the reputation of a students’ union more, I would argue, than cancelling and banning meetings.
Peter Baran is general manager of Soas Students’ Union.