New guidance for universities has detailed how safe spaces and “no-platforming” policies stand in the eyes of freedom of speech laws.
The report, by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, was put together with 10 organisations following claims of censorship on university campuses.
It states that protecting legal expression was a legal requirement for most higher education providers, and recommends that peaceful protest should not infringe the rights of others.
“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,” EHRC chairman David Isaac said.
“Our guidance makes clear that freedom of speech in higher education should be upheld at every opportunity and should only be limited where there are genuine safety concerns or it constitutes unlawful behaviour.”
The 53-page document says that students have a right to not invite people to their institutions on account of concerns about their views – a practice it says is wrongly referred to as “no-platforming”.
But it adds that blanket bans on groups and organisations, or trying to stop another society inviting a speaker with lawful views from speaking, may be against the law.
The National Union of Students has a formal “no-platform” policy preventing listed organisations with racist or fascist views from speaking at events.
“Universities host thousands of events each year, among a student population of more than two million, and the vast majority of these pass without incident,” Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said.
“Although there is little evidence of a systematic problem of free speech in universities, there is a legal duty on the higher education sector to secure free speech within the law and it is important that universities continually review their approaches.”
The report also noted that education providers were obliged to weigh freedom of speech against other obligations – including the Prevent duty to stop people being drawn into terrorism.
Universities and colleges need to comply with a duty to stop discrimination and harassment, to promote equal opportunities for people with protected characteristics, and to consider the harm views may cause their members.
“As the guidance rightly notes, the right to freedom of expression is not absolute and that students’ unions and universities must balance that right with other legal duties,” Amatey Doku, of the NUS, said.
“We were pleased to input into the drafting process in order to help identify where confusion can arise and to dispel some of the common myths around students’ union activity.”
(c) Sky News 2019: Guidelines published for university free speech