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Freedom of speech
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Our Letter to the Prime Minister
IMPORTANT UPDATE: The government have incorporated several of our recommendations into their Feb 16th policy paper (highlighted green in the letter). We now need to ensure these become law and that the other recommendations (red) are also included. Read full commentary here.
Dear Prime Minister,
Freedom of speech is one of our most precious rights. It enables the free sharing of ideas and information, allows citizens to speak out against injustice without fear of punishment, and creates an environment in which all citizens can freely share their most deeply held convictions.
The right to freedom of speech holds together a thriving democracy and has been included in every major human rights document from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights onwards.
It is a right that courts have identified as being particularly worthy of protection. Not only have our courts protected speech which might be favourably received or seen as inoffensive, but also speech that could offend, shock, or disturb. Indeed, many of the great ideas that we take for granted today were once considered offensive. Accordingly, as senior judge Sir Stephen Sedley has recognised: ‘freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.’
Of all places, university campuses should be places where freedom of speech flourishes. These institutions are intended to be crucibles of critical thinking. Students should be empowered to debate and explore all kinds of ideas – even those with which they disagree. If universities do not uphold this fundamental freedom, society at large will be poorer for it.
However, a creeping culture of intolerance, ‘no-platforming’, ‘safe spaces’ and aggressively disruptive protest is spreading across universities. Student representative bodies in particular have frustrated the ability of students to assemble and exercise their right to free speech. It has led to a chilling effect for students and a hesitancy to express views on topics which might upset or offend others. In practice, a ‘heckler’s veto’ has been established.
Despite acknowledgment of the problem by successive universities ministers and the Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, student societies continue to be refused affiliation because their views are allegedly ‘not in line’ with that of the student body at large; academics continue to be frustrated in their attempts to undertake research on controversial topics; and speakers continue to be ‘no-platformed’ at the insistence of vocal minority groups claiming to be offended.
Examples are numerous and include:
- A midwifery student subjected to a Fitness to Practise investigation and four-month suspension because lecturers objected to her beliefs;
- A former Home Secretary ‘no-platformed’ at a university event just 30 minutes before she was due to speak on women in politics;
- You, as London mayor, were disinvited from a debate on the European Union hosted by students at Kings College;
- A professor requiring physical security on campus due to threats made by students.
This cannot go on.
In the 2019 Conservative Manifesto, you promised to strengthen academic freedom and free speech at universities. We urge you to follow through on that commitment. In particular, we ask that you:
- Ensure universities uphold their legal duties to protect freedom of speech on campus, and consider withholding taxpayer funding if they flout these duties.
- Ensure university staff and student representatives receive comprehensive training on their responsibilities to uphold and protect freedom of speech on campuses as part of their basic induction.
- Publish clear government guidance on freedom of speech on university campuses.
- Require the Office for Students to actively monitor freedom of speech on university campuses and provide direct support to students who have had their right to freedom of speech denied – as well as reporting annually on this activity.
- Ensure that where student representative bodies are registered charities, they comply with charity law and Charity Commission guidance.
Failure to take this issue seriously jeopardises our country’s future. As the education secretary noted in a recent letter to The Times: ‘If Britain as a nation is to prosper, it needs a vibrant, academically curious and intellectually diverse university sector.’
With this in mind, we implore you to prioritise these initiatives to help ensure that the robust legal protections which exist for freedom of expression are respected, celebrated, and cherished on our university campuses.
We engage with the government and the media to ensure open discussion is possible on campus
We create resources to enable students and members of the academic community to know their rights
We work through an alliance of more than 30 lawyers across the UK to provide help and expertise to students and societies
National Poll results
ADF UK is a faith-based, legal advocacy charity. We work tirelessly to protect fundamental freedoms, including everybody’s right to freedom of speech. You can learn more about the wider work of ADF International here.