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Claims students have created university free speech crisis have been ‘exaggerated’, says report

'The report into free speech at universities has uncovered that there is no crisis of student censorship on campuses. It really is much ado about nothing'

Eleanor Busby
Education Correspondent
Tuesday 27 March 2018 18:24 BST
Jacob Rees-Mogg stands between brawling students at speech at the University of the West of England

Claims that students have created a free speech crisis on university campuses have been “exaggerated”, according to a new report by MPs and peers.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) did not find “the wholesale censorship of debate” in UK universities that some media reporting had suggested.

Instead it found a widespread view in the sector that free speech was “not overly inhibited and that it was valued by students."

The findings of the inquiry come amid continuing debate about free speech at universities – with reports of speakers and debates being opposed or criticised, often by student unions or societies.

However, the majority of student union officers surveyed by the committee said that restriction of free speech was not a problem at their university.

“The press accounts of widespread suppression of free speech are clearly out of kilter with reality,” the report says. “A large amount of evidence suggests that the narrative that ‘censorious students’ have created a ‘free speech crisis’ in universities has been exaggerated.”

It notes that two of the most high-profile examples of so-called “no platforming” – such as feminist writer Germaine Greer at Cardiff University and human rights activist Peter Tatchell at Canterbury Christ Church University – did not curtail the speakers’ freedom of speech.

“These are actually examples where students manifested their right to freedom of expression through peaceful protest or refusing to share a platform with someone,” the report says.

And when things have gone wrong - like the protest at Jacob Rees-Mogg's speech at the University of the West of England last month - the "difficulties can be caused by outsiders", rather than students or the university, the report adds.

Masked individuals disrupt Jacob Rees-Mogg speech at UWE Bristol

The committee did conclude that free speech on campus had been hampered in some cases by intolerant attitudes and unacceptable behaviour, red tape and a lack of clear guidance.

So the report calls on the Charity Commission, which regulates student unions as charities, to review its guidance.

University codes of practice on freedom of speech should be clear, it states.

“Freedom of speech within the law should mean just that - and it is vital in universities," said Harriet Harman, chairwoman of the JCHR and a Labour MP. "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 focused 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.“

A spokesperson for the National Union of Students (NUS), which is holding its annual conference in Glasgow this week, said: “I am delighted to see the report from the JCHR inquiry into free speech at universities has uncovered what most of us knew all along: that there is no crisis of student censorship on campuses. It really is much ado about nothing.”

Chris Hale, director of policy at Universities UK, added: ”Universities are absolutely committed to promoting and securing free speech and will not allow legitimate speech to be stifled. There is already a legal duty on the higher education sector to secure free speech within the law and universities have developed policies in this area.

“As the report states, there is little hard evidence of a systematic problem of free speech in universities. But, despite the thousands of events that go ahead across the sector without incident, a small number of flashpoints and challenges do arise from time to time."

He said it was "important that universities are well equipped to secure free speech within the law, while balancing this with other responsibilities such as the safety of students and staff.”

He added: “We will look at the advice of the committee in this area and how it can complement the already extensive experience of managing such events and policies universities have in place.

”Universities must continue to be places where difficult topics are discussed and where people, however controversial their views, should be allowed to speak within the law, and their views challenged openly."

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