Family & Education

Free speech pledge for universities

Protest Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The right to protest and free speech needs clearer guidelines, the universities minister says

Free speech in universities has to be protected from "chilling" intolerance and "over-zealous" regulations, says the Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah.

The minister has met university and student leaders on Thursday to create a more straightforward set of guidelines for ensuring open debate on campus.

Mr Gyimah warned "unfashionable or unpopular" views should not be stifled.

Sir Michael Barber, who chairs the Office for Students, said "challenging" ideas had a right to be heard.

The meeting of higher education groups and government - described as a "free speech summit" - is a response to concerns that universities have become hostile places for freedom of expression.

'No platforming'

There have been warnings about speakers being blocked by so-called "no platforming", where it's claimed their views are so offensive that students try to stop them speaking.

But when Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights investigated, it found that a bigger problem was red tape and confusion over what was permissible.

"University bureaucracy" and fear of controversy was inhibiting free speech, said Harriet Harman, who chairs the committee.

Image copyright UK Parliament
Image caption Sam Gyimah said free speech needed to be protected from "wreckers" and "bureaucrats"

Mr Gyimah is sending a strong message that a culture of censorship is not acceptable - but also that universities need to have a clearer set of rules over what are the boundaries of debate and protest.

He describes the current regulations as "murky" and lacking in consistency - and for the first time wants a more coherent set of guidelines that can be used across institutions.

It's being claimed as the biggest intervention by ministers in campus free speech for more than 30 years.


"A society in which people feel they have a legitimate right to stop someone expressing their views on campus simply because they are unfashionable or unpopular is rather chilling," says Mr Gyimah.

"There is a risk that overzealous interpretation of a dizzying variety of rules is acting as a brake on legal free speech on campus.

"That is why I am bringing together leaders from across the higher education sector to clarify the rules and regulations around speakers and events to prevent bureaucrats or wreckers on campus from exploiting gaps for their own ends."

The new higher education watchdog, the Office for Students, has a responsibility for protecting free speech.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Jacob Rees-Mogg faced protests at the University of the West of England

Sir Michael Barber, who chairs the new regulator, said: "Our universities are places where free speech should always be promoted and fostered.

"That includes the ability for everyone to share views which may be challenging or unpopular, even if that makes some people feel uncomfortable."

Heckling is 'good for politicians'

But Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, pointed to the finding of the parliamentary committee that "there is no systematic problem with free speech in universities".

"Universities are committed to promoting and protecting free speech within the law. Tens of thousands of speaking events are put on every year across the country, the majority pass without incident," he said.

The report from MPs and peers on the Joint Committee on Human Rights found that flashpoints tended to be around a number of "divisive issues" - such as Israel and the Palestinian territories, "transgender issues", right- and left-wing clashes and "pro-life or anti-abortion views".

But the committee found little evidence that censorship or confrontations were "pervasive" - but instead found that a relatively small number of incidents were being widely shared.

Among the most high-profile incidents was a protest against Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, when he was speaking at the University of the West of England.

When Mr Rees-Mogg gave evidence to the committee, he said heckling could help politicians.

"It can actually be very good for the speaker rather than damaging," he told the committee.

Harriet Harman, who chaired the committee, said: "The minister is right to recognise the confusing array of guidance on free speech."

She called for an end to the "confusion of the duties arising from Prevent, charity law, and the Education Act".

"Education and learning depend on dialogue and debate," she said, and free speech "includes the right to say anything that's lawful, even when others may find it disturbing, upsetting or offensive".