Statement from Universities UK:
Universities UK’s publication External speakers in higher education institutions aims to provide guidance to institutions in managing the process for inviting external speakers onto campus, both in terms of upholding principles of free speech, and also complying with the law. It was produced with significant input from a range of organisations and individuals (referenced in the full report) as well as extensive legal advice.
The guidance is not prescriptive. It is intended to provide practical assistance to universities in making decisions about who they choose to invite to speak on campus, steering them through all the different considerations, legal and otherwise, that apply. Universities are independent institutions and will make decisions themselves on a case by case basis.
The guidance includes a hypothetical case study (case study 2) involving an external speaker invited to talk about his orthodox religious faith, who had subsequently requested segregated seating areas for men and women. The case study considers the facts, the relevant law and the questions that the university should ask, and concludes that if neither women nor men were disadvantaged and a non-segregated seating area were also provided, it might in the specific circumstances of the case be appropriate for the university to agree to the request.
The guidance does not promote gender segregation. When faced with requests for segregated seating, universities will consider all the circumstances: they will consider questions of disadvantage to men or women, and will inform themselves about the speaker’s views and the context of the event. Many, taking account of all factors, may legitimately refuse the request. It is for example very hard to see any university agreeing to a request for segregation that was not voluntary and did not have the broad support of those attending. But with different circumstances, as with the case study, the university may agree to it.
The case study has generated considerable public concern and media coverage, some of which raised questions about our previous legal advice. In the light of that, we sought an opinion from senior counsel, Fenella Morris QC. We have now received her advice which confirms that the guidance is correct and provides an appropriate foundation for lawful decision-making. The advice is also clear that in adjudicating between conflicting priorities in relation to gender and religion, institutions have to balance a range of competing interests and strike a fair balance between them having regard to all the individual circumstances of each case. A copy of senior counsel’s advice is available at the link below (see notes).
Given the continuing public concern we have also today written to the Equality and Human Rights Commission to request that they consider having the issue clarified by the High Court or provide a clear and public statement about the law and the relevant policy considerations in this area.
1. The legal advice by Fenella Morris QC is available to download at: http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/highereducation/Documents/2013/ExternalSpeakersLegalOpinion.pdf
2. Universities UK’s guidance External speakers in higher education institutions was published on 22 November 2013. For more information, please see the news release.