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Serious barriers limit free speech in Universities, says Joint Committee on Human Rights

The Joint Committee on Human Rights publishes report into free speech in universities today, highlighting serious concerns over barriers to free speech.

But instead of just calling on the Government and others to take action, the Committee is publishing its own guidance for universities and students organising events to empower them to protect and promote this vital human right. 

The Committee, which is made up of MPs and Peers and chaired by Harriet Harman MP, say that there are a number of factors which actively limit free speech in universities, including:

  • Regulatory complexity.
  • Intolerant attitudes, often incorrectly using the banner of “no-platforming” and “safe-space” policies.
  • Incidents of unacceptable intimidating behaviour by protestors intent on preventing free speech and debate.
  • Student Unions being overly cautious for fear of breaking the rules.
  • Unnecessary bureaucracy imposed on those organising events.
  • Fear and confusion over what the Prevent Duty entails.
  • Unduly complicated and cautious guidance from the Charity Commission.

The Committee welcomes the Government’s strong support for free speech, including plans from Minister Sam Gyimah to hold a summit with key players on how to promote free speech. However, as solutions to the above concerns, MPs and Peers are recommending to students, universities and the authorities:

  • That an independent review of the Prevent policy is necessary to assess what impact it is having on students and free speech, after evidence the Committee took demonstrated an adverse effect on events with student faith groups.
  • That the Charity Commission, which regulates student unions as registered charities, review its approach and guidance, and that its actions are proportionate and are adequately explained to student unions and don’t unnecessarily limit free speech.
  • That the Office for Students should ensure university policies proactively secure lawful free speech and are not overly burdensome.
  • That student societies should not stop other student societies from holding their meetings.  They have the right to protest but must not seek to stop events entirely.
  • That while there must be opportunities for genuinely sensitive discussions, and that the whole of the university cannot be a “safe space.” Universities must be places where open debate can take place so that students can develop their own opinions on unpopular, controversial or provocative ideas.
  • Groups or individuals holding unpopular opinions which are within the law should not be shut down nor be subject to undue additional scrutiny by student unions or universities.

Members of the Committee believe that codes of practice on freedom of speech should facilitate debate, not unduly restrict it.

Chair of the Committee, Harriet Harman MP, said:

“Freedom of speech within the law should mean just that – and it is vital in universities. Evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights showed that there is a problem of inhibition of free speech in universities.

“While media reporting has focussed on students inhibiting free speech – and in our report we urge universities to take action to prevent that – free speech is also inhibited by university bureaucracy and restrictive guidance from the Charity Commission.

“We want students themselves to know their rights to free speech and that’s why we’ve issued a guide for students today.”

Committee Membership   

Ms Harriet Harman MP (Chair) (Labour)  
Ms Fiona Bruce MP (Conservative) 
Ms Karen Buck MP (Labour) 
Alex Burghart MP (Conservative) 

Ms Joanna Cherry MP (SNP) 
Jeremy Lefroy 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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