Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry and report: Freedom of Speech in Universities

Serious barriers limit free speech in universities, finds a March 2018 report from the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

The report identifies factors that actively limit free speech in universities, including:

  • Regulatory complexity
  • Intolerant attitudes, often incorrectly using the banner of “no-platforming” and “safe-space” policies
  • Incidents of unacceptable intimidating behaviour by protestors intent on preventing free speech and debate
  • Student Unions being overly cautious for fear of breaking the rules
  • Unnecessary bureaucracy imposed on those organising events
  • Fear and confusion over what the Prevent Duty entails
  • Unduly complicated and cautious guidance from the Charity Commission.

The Committee make a series of recommendations for improvement, including:

  • An independent review of the Prevent policy, after evidence the Committee took demonstrated an adverse effect on events with student faith groups
  • That the Charity Commission review its approach and guidance, and that its actions are proportionate and are adequately explained to student unions and don’t unnecessarily limit free speech
  • That the Office for Students ensure university policies proactively secure lawful free speech and are not overly burdensome
  • That student societies should not stop other student societies from holding their meetings.  They have the right to protest but must not seek to stop events entirely
  • That while there must be opportunities for genuinely sensitive discussions, and that the whole of the university cannot be a “safe space.” Universities must be places where open debate can take place so that students can develop their own opinions on unpopular, controversial or provocative ideas
  • Groups or individuals holding unpopular opinions which are within the law should not be shut down nor be subject to undue additional scrutiny by student unions or universities.

Chair of the Committee, Harriet Harman MP, said:

“Freedom of speech within the law should mean just that – and it is vital in universities…

While media reporting has focused on students inhibiting free speech – and in our report we urge universities to take action to prevent that – free speech is also inhibited by university bureaucracy and restrictive guidance from the Charity Commission.

We want students themselves to know their rights to free speech and that’s why we’ve issued a guide for students today.”

Read the full report, a summary or the recommendations.

Background

The Joint Committee on Human Rights called for written submissions on freedom of speech in universities. The deadline for submissions was 15 December 2017.

Universities have a statutory duty to ensure free speech. Yet Prevent Duty Guidance for Higher Education places limits on this freedom.

The Committee invited submissions of no more than 1,500 words from interested groups and individuals, including on:

  • Whether Government policy on free speech in universities is coherent
  • Taken together, do the Prevent duty and the statutory duty to ensure free speech appropriately balance Convention rights and public interest considerations?
  • The role of the Office for Students in ensuring freedom of speech
  • University authorities have a statutory duty to secure freedom of speech, including on student union premises. Student unions say they are private bodies and have a right to refuse speakers. Should university authorities have responsibility for the activities of their student unions? If so, to what extent?
  • Is there concrete evidence that free speech is being suppressed in universities? Who should be responsible for monitoring this?
  • If there is a problem, in what ways is free speech being suppressed? By whom? What are the causes? Is any problem increasing?

Find more information on the Parliament UK website.

Make a submission.