Universities have a duty to stop students’ unions from blocking Christian or pro-life societies due to “hypersensitivity”, the equalities chief has said.
David Isaac, chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), criticised student groups which have tried to bar such societies from booking rooms for events or holding stalls at freshers’ fairs.
He said that universities should be “bastions of debate and defenders of expression”.
Freedom of speech
Speaking at the launch of a report about faith on campus by think tank Theos, Mr Isaac said: “We are living in an age of hypersensitivity where it is increasingly easier for people to feel offended”.
But banning groups with unpopular views, he said, is not the answer.
It is “not consistent with ensuring freedom of speech on campus, and the EHRC guidance makes clear that it should not happen”.
The guidance, released earlier this year, states that everybody has a right to express their views, even if they “offend, shock or disturb” others, and calls on universities to “widen” debates rather than narrow them.
Last year, pro-life group Life was barred by three universities from setting up stalls at their freshers’ fairs.
The charity wrote to English universities’ independent regulator to voice its concern “about discriminatory behaviour and freedom of expression violations”.
Balliol College in Oxford also came under fire in 2017 after it banned the Christian Union from its freshers’ fair because it might ‘alienate’ students of other religions and that it would constitute a “micro aggression”.
The author Ann Farmer, writing for The Conservative Woman, agreed with Mr Isaac on the need for free speech but did not think “hypersensitivity” was the reason for recent clampdowns.
Instead, she said they are the result of “the bullying of student bodies who wished to censor the views they don’t like”.
She added that the equalities chief’s next step “must be to address this wider antagonism” to pro-life and Christian beliefs, and the attempts to censor them.
She concluded: “Britain’s first universities were Christian creations, making it ever more ironic that it is here, in the cradle of modern democracy they in part gave rise to, that we are experiencing such a repression of conscience and speech.
“Let us hope that Mr Isaac’s intervention will mark the resurrection of both.”