Creating the right environment for freedom of expression: new guidance for universities

David Isaac

David Isaac

Equality and Human Rights Commission
Audience member asking a question

Students come to university to learn, widen their horizons, mix with new people and be exposed to new ideas. They have a chance to look at things from multiple perspectives and acquire the skills to challenge those with whom they disagree. To create this environment, universities must do all they can to ensure proper debate and freedom of expression.   

Freedom of expression in higher education is often perceived as a contentious issue. Although thousands of events take place in universities across the country each year without controversy, there is a widespread perception that violent protests, over-cautious bureaucracy, and censorship is commonplace. Notwithstanding many sensational headlines, we don't actually know the true scale of this issue. What we do know is that universities are keen for advice on how to deal with it. That's why the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and other leading organisations have come together to provide clear guidance on upholding freedom of expression in a way that doesn't put people at risk, or allow hatred, bigotry and intolerance to thrive. 

Our new guidance sets out the facts: universities have a legal requirement to protect freedom of expression under the Education (No.2) Act 1986, and they should always aim to widen debate and never narrow it. It reminds us that everyone has the universal right to express their opinions, including those that may offend, shock or disturb others. This relates to all forms of expression from written material in university magazines or online, to speaking events on campus, and actions such as peaceful protest. However, freedom of expression is a qualified right, and can be limited where the content is so extreme that it constitutes harassment or incites hatred on the grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation. 

The approach of the law sounds relatively straightforward, but in practice it can be difficult to balance freedom of expression with the need to protect students, speakers and the wider public.

Subjectivity makes this even harder. Given the statutory obligation of universities to ensure freedom of speech, robust debate and evidence-based rebuttal is essential; but hatred and bigotry must always be challenged, and tackled with appropriate action. Although people must always be able to express their views, they don't have the right to not be criticised for what they say. Universities should always try to ensure balanced debate and avoid closed discussions. 

All universities are required to have a code of practice that sets out how they secure freedom of expression. They must also ensure students are aware of the code, and that disciplinary measures are taken if members, employees and students don't comply. Practical steps universities can take to promote balanced and respectful debate include:

  • having an independent chairperson facilitate an event and make sure a range of viewpoints can be heard
  • filming events to deter the use of unlawful speech
  • putting additional security in place
  • ticketing an event to prevent non-student violent protest
  • reviewing any promotional materials before the event
  • training staff on how to facilitate well-balanced debate

Unlike those who think it's harmful to give a platform to offensive views, we believe we should always try to listen to what others have to say.

Instead of silencing discussion or shying away from difficult or unpleasant conversations, we must engage and challenge views that we disagree with. This is essential in higher education as well as society more generally. While speeches that harass audiences or incite hatred should be reported to university authorities or the police, respectful discussion and dialogue will ultimately help to eliminate extreme and harmful attitudes. Through this approach I'm optimistic that even when issues generate real disagreement and anxiety, there will be a better chance of resolving things. Stifling debate only reinforces prejudice and isolates us all. I hope our guidance gives universities, students and everyone who cares about freedom of expression a clearer way forward.

To contact the EHRC about the guidance or to find out more about their work in the higher education sector, please visit

Leave a Comment

Jason Coy
Jason Coy says:
7 February 2019 at 11:56

Yes! I agree, on it. 

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