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Freedom of speech at universities includes the right to protest

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Recent debate over freedom of speech in universities has begun to resemble a moral panic, where realities disappear and anecdotes and half-truths unduly influence political and policy thinking.​

It is therefore helpful that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has examined this vitally important issue in a more nuanced and evidence-based way. On the day that the final report of the committee​ is published, what can be learned about the issues and challenges in this area?

To begin with, the report puts forward a definition of free speech that universities already endorse: everyone has the right to free speech within the law, this right is a foundation for democracy and is enshrined in law, and is especially important in universities, where education and learning are advanced through dialogue and debate. Fundamentally, freedom of speech is a human right.

The crucial point unearthed in what follows is the scale of the problem. While it is right to highlight 'serious concerns', the report brings some much-needed perspective, and recognises that hard evidence of a systemic problem simply does not exist.​

Every one of Universities UK's 136 members hold hundreds – if not thousands – of events each year among a student population of over 2 million, and the vast majority pass without incident.

This monumental scale of debate and dialogue over social, civic, cultural, political and religious issues should be celebrated. Thankfully, the committee's report unambiguously recognises this, and criticises specious press reporting and analysis that exaggerates the problem (such as Spiked Online's free speech ranking).

There are, however, barriers and challenges identified by the report that will need to be addressed if we are to continue securing free speech in universities now, and in the future. ​

One such challenge is unacceptable and intimidatory behaviour by protestors, which is designed to block free speech and debate. Universities work hard to minimise the impact of protestors, but it is a logistical challenge. Peaceful protest is healthy, but as the committee points out, in some cases disciplinary measures and police involvement may be necessary. More can be done between universities and students unions to promote the importance of respectful protest; it is a right which deserves the same protection as free speech within the law at our universities.

Other barriers relate to regulation, complexity and bureaucracy, which the report explores in a relatively neutral and blame-free way. Universities and students' unions are large and complex organisations, and the range of regulations and definitions can be problematic when considering wider issues such as the safety and wellbeing of staff. It is therefore commendable that the committee has unpicked these issues, and the call for further clarity over Prevent, for example, is welcome by staff who work in this area, even if they do not necessarily agree with all of the analysis.

Another area that needs careful consideration is the role of the Office for Students (OfS), which will have a role in monitoring whether higher education providers and their governing bodies have a plan in place to meet the freedom of speech requirements in the 1986 Education Act.

The sector will need to ensure the OfS doesn't overstep its powers and pursue an overly interventionist approach to implementation and monitoring, which could lead to further bureaucracy, and risk-averse behaviour. Instead, the OfS should work with the sector to understand effective and proportionate monitoring, to achieve greater consistency and clarity and of institutional polices, building on the committee's advice.  ​

Overall, the report is an important intervention for all those that care about freedom of speech,​ and the fundamental role played by our universities. ​

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