Freedom of speech is 'not in crisis' at British universities, says Christian think tank

(Photo: Nathan Dumlao)

Freedom of speech "is not in crisis" on British university campuses but "a minority of students feel under pressure to self-censor their views", says a major new report by Theos.

The report, launched on Thursday, cites research by YouGov on behalf of the Christian think tank which found that over half (52%) of British adults believe freedom of speech is under threat in UK universities. 

A greater proportion believed that universities should always allow free speech within the law, even for extreme speakers (44%), compared to 35% who said some views were so offensive that universities should not allow them.

While a sizable minority (29%) said they think 'Islamic extremism' is a common problem, the Theos report says that "extremism is not a significant issue in universities". 

Despite the perceptions, Theos said that the crisis narrative about the state of religious freedom at British universities is "largely exaggerated" and that most students feel free to express their views.

However, it identified some areas of "tension", such as gender and sexuality.

Other factors, like the "intimidating behaviour of protesters" or Prevent Duty regulations designed to stop people being drawn into terrorism could "chill" freedom of speech on campus. 

Muslims students, in particular, reported feeling negatively affected by the Prevent Duty but pro-Israel students could also feel that their free speech was curtailed, as could Christians who disagree with women in positions of leadership, or Muslims who believe in gender segregation. 

READ MORE: Pro-life student group wins right to presence on Aberdeen University campus after legal challenge

Some Muslims and Jews were worried about anti-Semitic and Islamophobic abuse, the report noted.

"Some students feel under pressure to self-censor their views, including students with socially (or politically) conservative views; students who support the policies of the State of Israel; and some (though not all) Muslim students who feel unfairly targeted by the Prevent Duty," it said.

"Gender and sexuality are still sources of tension among some societies. For example, some Christian Unions continue to have internal debates about whether women can be in charge.

"Some Muslim students (women as well as men) believe it is important to put limitations on interactions between the genders, but feel unable to practice gender segregation as they wish to because of a wider cultural disapproval of this."

Where religious groups held activities on campus to share the faith, Theos said this was "met with amicable or at least indifferent responses from other students, rather than hostility".

"In general, students adhere to the principle of tolerance and adopt a 'live and let live' approach to these activities, as long as they feel they are not manipulative," it said.

The report recommends that universities regularly engage with students of faith to learn what they need in order to freely practise their faith, while student unions' should train a member of staff in religious literacy.


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