The government has published new guidelines on free speech in universities which presents the protection of freedom of expression as a legal requirement.
David Isaac, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, commented that freedom of expression should be “upheld at every opportunity”, adding that “holding open, challenging debates, rather than silencing the views of those we don’t agree with helps to build tolerance and address prejudice and discrimination.
The 53-page document, published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, comes in response to allegations of censorship of controversial speakers on university campuses.
According to the new guidelines, there are “occasions where free speech can be lawfully limited”. Isaac said that if “safety concerns” arise over the presence of a speaker on campus, universities can and should act.
The guidelines state that the practice known as ‘no-platforming’ is “often misunderstood and misreported”. It draws a distinction between the No Platform policy in use by the NUS – a legitimate policy designed to prevent those who “are known to hold racist or fascist views from speaking” – and other attempts to block speakers. In some cases, the government may have “a legal duty to take steps to enable” controversial speakers to visit campuses.
In practice, the new guidelines essentially clarify the law as it stands. They explain that SUs are not under a legal obligation to invite speakers, but a speaker being disinvited – for instance, if a society extends an invitation which the SU then blocks – may constitute illegal censorship.
The government position on this issue has been clear for some time. Former Universities Minister Sam Gyimah last year described free speech in universities as facing “institutional hostility”.
Amatey Doku, NUS Vice President for Higher Education, commented that “the right to freedom of expression is not absolute”, but added that “students’ unions are required to ensure freedom of expression is upheld within the law: they are adept at doing so and support many thousands of events each year”.