New Government guidance aimed at protecting free speech at universities

An aerial view of the University of Oxford(Photo: Unsplash/Sidharth Bhatia)

New guidance has been published by the Government to protect lawful free speech at British universities.

The Government said the new guidance would ensure university campuses remain a 'forum for open and robust enquiry' while offering additional clarity around the 'contentious issue of hate speech'.

The introduction of the guidance, produced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, comes at a time when some students and academics have raised concerns about censorship around issues like abortion and gender identity.

The guidance gives as an example a student union considering whether to invite a writer to debate gender equality who it later discovers has shared on social media that they believe transgender women are still men. According to the guidance, if the student union wanted to 'no-platform' the writer on the grounds of transphobic hate speech, it would be within its rights to do so but would not be able to prevent other students from inviting the same writer to speak.

The guidance states: 

"An SU considers inviting a writer to debate gender equality. It has a policy of not inviting speakers who use what it calls 'hate speech'. During planning, they find out that the writer has spoken on social media about their belief that women with a Gender Recognition Certificate are still men. The SU official organising the debate decides that the writer's views amount to transphobic hate speech, and announces on Twitter that they have decided not to invite the writer. The writer complains that the SU's decision to 'no-platform' them violates their right to freedom of expression. The writer has not yet been invited to speak, and, as there is no legal duty on the SU to invite them, there is no infringement of the writer's freedom of speech. However, if an affiliated society or other students invited the same speaker to talk, the SU could not prevent them from doing so as the speaker's views are lawful. This would engage the HEP's s.43 duty to protect free speech, informed by the Article 10 rights of the students and speaker to give and receive ideas."

Announcing the guidance, universities minister Chris Skidmore said it provided a clear framework for universities and student unions to work within hate speech laws and 'Prevent' - the Government's anti-radicalisation scheme requiring that they protect staff and students from extremism.

'Free speech is a value integral to the independence and innovation that embodies the higher education sector in the UK, fuelling academic thought and challenging injustice. This guidance is a symbol of the commitment from across the sector to protecting freedom of speech,' said Mr Skidmore.

Dr David Llewellyn, Chair of GuildHE and Vice Chancellor of Harper Adams University, welcomed the guidance while saying it was important that students be taught how to critically analyse different perspectives.

'Higher education institutions are champions of free speech, places where ideas and views - even those that some might find offensive - can be rigorously discussed and challenged. Our staff, and others contributing to our educational and research activities, must be able to freely consider contentious issues,' he said.

'We also have to be able to work with students to develop their ability to critically analyse what is being said, weigh up different arguments and contribute to the debate.

'That is why we welcome this new guidance, which will provide greater clarity on the rights and obligations for freedom of expression, particularly in areas such as the balance between our commitment to free speech and legislation to prevent radicalisation.'

Alex Proudfoot, Chief Executive of Independent Higher Education said: 'Free speech is an essential ingredient of our sector and our civil society, but the average independent university bears little resemblance to the hyped-up image of higher education as a battleground for identity politics.'