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Joint Committee on Human Rights surveys Student Unions on Free Speech

Today (9 Jan) the Joint Committee on Human Rights has cascaded an online survey to all student unions through the National Union of Students (NUS), asking for their views on the controversial issue of Freedom of Speech in Universities. The Committee are doing this as part of their effort to gather evidence for their ongoing inquiry into the subject. They ask:

  • Whether restriction of free speech is a problem in their institution and or across the sector;
  • How confident students are about inviting external speakers to event;
  • How many events have been cancelled because the speaker was too controversial;
  • What proportion of external speaker events have to be escalated to university authorities for approval;
  • Who should determine free speech policy at the university: the student union,  the University administration,  the Government,  the new Office for Students or some other body.

In addition, next week, the Committee will also launch a public web forum via which individual students can share their views and stories with the Committee, with more details to be announced in due course.

This Wednesday 10th January, MPs and Peers will also be taking evidence from the Vice Chancellors and students from Bristol University, the University of Edinburgh, the University of Sussex together with Baroness Valerie Amos of SOAS, gathering their views on whether current free speech codes are working.

Universities have a statutory duty to ensure free speech. The importance of this is underscored by Universities Minister Jo Johnson’s recent call for the Office of Students, which will take on regulatory responsibility for the sector on April 1 2018, to champion free speech in universities. Freedom of speech is canvassed as one of the core Public Interest Principles to be secured by that office.

However the Prevent Duty Guidance for Higher Education indicates that Higher Education Institutions should not platforms for those encouraging terrorism or inviting support for a proscribed organisation – both of which are illegal.

The Guidance also states that:

“Furthermore, when deciding whether or not to host a particular speaker, RHEBs [Higher Education Bodies] should consider carefully whether the views being expressed, or likely to be expressed, constitute extremist views that risk drawing people into terrorism or are shared by terrorist groups. In these circumstances theevent should not be allowed to proceed except where RHEBs are entirely convinced that such risk can be fully mitigated without cancellation of the event.”

Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides that:

Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.” The right is not absolute and can be restricted by considerations of national security, public safety, the prevention of disorder or crime or the protection of the reputation and rights of others.

This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

Committee Membership: 

Harriet Harman MP (Chair) (Labour)

Fiona Bruce MP (Conservative)

Karen Buck MP (Labour)

Jeremy Lefroy MP (Conservative)

Mark Pritchard MP (Conservative)

Baroness Hamwee (Liberal Democrat)

Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon (Labour)

Baroness O’Cathain (Conservative)

Baroness Prosser (Labour)

Lord Trimble (Conservative)

Lord Woolf (Crossbench)


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