Universities have a legal duty to uphold free speech, says new guidance

Universities have a legal duty to uphold free speech and cannot ban speakers simply for holding controversial opinions, new guidance says.

The guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) states that everybody has a right to express their views, even if they “offend, shock or disturb” others.

The 53-page guidance encourages university institutions to “widen” debates, rather than narrow them.

‘Discussed and challenged’

David Isaac, Chair of the EHRC, said: “The free expression and exchange of different views without persecution or interference goes straight to the heart of our democracy and is a vital part of education.

The free expression and exchange of different views without persecution or interference goes straight to the heart of our democracy and is a vital part of education.

David Isaac, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission

“Holding open, challenging debates rather than silencing the views of those we don’t agree with helps to build tolerance and address prejudice and discrimination.”

Free speech should be “upheld at every opportunity”, and should only be restricted where there are “genuine safety concerns”, or if it is unlawful.

Still causes problems

Colin Hart, Director of The Christian Institute, said: “We welcome this guidance because it’s a clear step in the right direction. But it’s not three cheers for the EHRC – more like two cheers – as there are some statements that could still cause problems for free speech.

“One case study suggests requiring an atheist society to present a range of views in a debate on the existence of God. Under this approach Christian Unions would also have to present a range of views on Christianity in meetings designed to hear about the Christian faith.

“Both scenarios infringe legal rights of association and are plainly unacceptable. The guidance also muddles and misstates the law in places, and uses terms like ‘harm’ without defining them.”

But he added: “Overall, the emphasis on free speech in the guidance is right and encouraging.”

We welcome this guidance because it’s a clear step in the right direction. But it’s not three cheers for the EHRC – more like two cheers – as there are some statements that could still cause problems for free speech.

Colin Hart, Director of The Christian Institute

Safe spaces

Universities Minister Chris Skidmore noted the emergence of university “safe spaces”, where students are protected from opinions they find offensive, and the growing trend of ‘no-platforming’ speakers who hold unpopular views.

Last year Bristol university began officially banning speakers who challenged transgender ideology.

Students at Cardiff University tried to get Germain Greer banned for her supposedly “transphobic” views, and Cambridge university banned women’s rights speaker Linda Bellos.

Similarly, Sussex university made it compulsory for guest speakers to submit their speeches in advance for vetting, in case it violated their ‘safe spaces’ policy.

Free speech

Currently universities must follow regulations from the Equality Act, Prevent duty and from the Office for Students, which has the power to fine or de-register institutions which fail to protect free speech.

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