Minister demands action to protect campus free speech

The universities minister, Sam Gyimah, has demanded action to further protect free speech at universities and has offered to work with the sector to create new guidance.

Free speech on campus should be encouraged and those attempting to shut it down must have nowhere to hide, the minister told higher education sector leaders at a free speech summit he chaired last Thursday.

Gyimah called on higher education organisations to stamp out “institutional hostility” to unfashionable views that have emerged in some student societies and urged them to work with the government following recent reports of a rise in so-called ‘safe spaces’ and ‘no platform’ policies that have appeared on campuses.

The minister said: “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.”

He described the current landscape as “murky”, with numerous pieces of disjointed sector guidance creating a web of complexity that risks being exploited by those wishing to stifle free speech.

Gyimah said: “There is a risk that overzealous interpretation of a dizzying variety of rules is acting as a brake on legal free speech on campus.

“That is why I have brought 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.”

He demanded further action be taken to protect lawful free speech on campus and offered to work with the sector to create new guidance that will for the first time provide clarity of the rules for both students and universities – making this the first government intervention of its kind since the free speech duty was introduced in 1986.

The free speech summit was hosted in London and brought together a wide range of influential organisations, including those that have existing guidance in this area, such as the Charity Commission, Universities UK and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.

The Office for Students, which came into force on 1 April, will act to protect free speech and can use its powers to name, shame or even fine institutions for not upholding the principle of free speech.

Sir Michael Barber, chair of the Office for Students, said: “Our universities are places where free speech should always be promoted and fostered. That includes the ability for everyone to share views that may be challenging or unpopular, even if that makes some people feel uncomfortable.”

He said “robust civility” was needed and the Office for Students would always encourage freedom of speech within the law and would “never intervene to restrict it”.

Alistair Jarvis, Universities UK chief executive, said universities are committed to promoting and protecting free speech within the law.

“Tens of thousands of speaking events are put on every year across the country; the majority pass without incident. A small number of flash points do occasionally occur, on contentious or controversial issues, but universities do all they can to protect free speech so events continue.”

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

Universities in England have a legal duty to secure freedom of speech for members, students and employees of the institution and for visiting speakers.

Chilling effect

The JCHR’s report, Freedom of Speech in Universities, said the extent to which students restrict free speech at universities “should not be exaggerated. Where it happens, it is a serious problem and it is wrong. But it is not a pervasive problem.”

It said even though much of the concern about free speech appears to have come from a small number of incidents which have been widely reported, “any interference with free speech rights in universities is unacceptable and we are concerned that such interference as has been reported could be having a ‘chilling effect’ on the exercise of freedom of speech more widely”.

The report found that a number of factors are limiting free speech, including intolerant attitudes, intimidation by protesters, unnecessary bureaucracy, confusion over what the ‘Prevent’ duties entail (Prevent is the government’s anti terrorism-recruitment programme), complex regulations and guidance, and concern by student unions not to infringe what they perceive to be restrictions.