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Our Religious Freedom: Freedom of speech in British universities

13 April 2018

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On 27 March the joint House of Commons/House of Lords Committee on Human Rights (chaired by Harriet Harman QC MP) released its report on freedom of speech in universities.

Executive summary

In the report, the Committee raised serious concerns about restrictions being placed on freedom of speech about faith, discussion of sexuality and abortion. Many of these restrictions come from other students seeking to impose “no-platform” and “safe-spaces” policies on the expression of minority views they disagree with. The committee heard evidence that Christians, and particularly Christian Unions, have been treated differently from other groups, had significant restrictions placed on them, been banned from freshers’ fairs, had their publications heavily censored, and even been labelled as extremists. The committee strongly condemned such actions and urged universities to take disciplinary action against those responsible, stating: “Universities must be places where open and uncensored debate (within the law) can take place so students can think for themselves and develop their own opinions on ideas which may be unpopular, controversial or provocative.”

1. Freedom of speech and other freedoms in universities

“Everyone has the right to free speech within the law. Unless it is unlawful, speech should usually be allowed. Free speech within the law should mean just that. This can include the right to say things which, though lawful, others may find disturbing or upsetting. The right extends further than just the right to make speeches. It extends to all forms of expression. Together, freedom of expression and freedom of association cover the right to form societies with lawful aims, even where those aims are not shared with the majority, and the right to peaceful protest…This right to free speech is a foundation for democracy. It is important in all settings, but especially in universities, where education and learning are advanced through dialogue and debate. It underpins academic freedom. Universities are places where ideas are developed, a diverse range of interesting–and sometimes controversial–topics should be debated.” (“Principles” set out at the beginning of the report).

However, the report also observed that a number of factors are limiting free speech including:

  • Intolerant attitudes, often using the banner of “no-platforming” and “safe-space” policies.
  • Incidents of unacceptable intimidatory behaviour by protesters intent on preventing free speech and debate.

The committee found that incidents where free speech was restricted often centred around a small number of issues:

“Our evidence suggests that incidents where freedom of expression has been restricted usually involve groups who are perceived as minorities, or as having views which some could consider to be offensive, but which are not necessarily unlawful; these could include pro- or anti-abortion views, issues of sexuality or gender, and matters concerning faith or atheism.”

2. The report cites concerns raised about freedom of speech relating to Christians including:

a) Refusal to allow Christian Unions space at freshers’ fairs or even in some instances to allow them to affiliate to the student union at all.

“‘…the proposal by some students at Oxford’s Balliol College to deny the Christian Union a space at a Fresher’s Fayre’ as examples of where groups have sought to ‘shut down debate altogether [rather] than to confront dissenting ideas or uncomfortable arguments.’”

b) Christian Unions have been subjected to “no-platforming” policies . Evidence submitted to the committee by the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF) gave as just one example, how Abertay University Student Association (SA) introduced "emotional risk assessments" in December 2016, stating:

“These have been used in an invasive and heavy- handed way for the past year and have resulted in the SA telling the CU what they can and can’t do and say. All of the CU’s activity (including weekly meetings, events, emails that will be sent to students/outside speakers) have to be approved in advance by the SA. In practice this means that one or two people in the SA office are able to make basic operations nearly impossible. The SA office regularly rejects titles for events because they are too provocative e.g. this semester they said they would ‘allow’ a public lunch time talk and discussion about suffering but the title could not mention a specific incidence of suffering in case of upset The CU’s preferred titles of:  "Where was God in the Manchester terrorist attacks?" and ‘How could God allow hurricane Gregory’ were not permitted.”

3. How freedom of speech is being restricted in universities

a) No-platform policies :

“According to the NUS, the purpose of a ‘no-platform’ policy is to prevent individuals or groups known to hold racist or fascist views from speaking at student union events and to ensure that student union officers do not share a public platform with such individuals or groups”

“The NUS’ official ‘safe-platform’ policy is a ‘specific’ and ‘narrow’ policy listing only six organisations: Al-Muhajiroun; British National Party (BNP); English Defence League (EDL); Hizb-ut-Tahir; Muslim Public Affairs Committee; and National Action.”

The committee state:
“In our view, freedom of expression is unduly interfered with:

  • when protests become so disruptive that they prevent the speakers from speaking or intimidate those attending;
  • if student groups are unable to invite speakers purely because other groups protest and oppose their appearance; and
  • if students are deterred from inviting speakers by complicated processes and bureaucratic procedures. It is clear that, although not widespread, all these problems do occur and they should not be tolerated.”

b) Safe-space policies

“‘Safe-space’ policies are guidelines produced by student unions that aim to encourage an environment on campus free from harassment and fear. They seek to restrict the expression of certain views or words that can make some groups feel unsafe. Debates take place within specific guidelines to ensure that people do not feel threatened because of their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Not all student unions have safe-space policies.”

“We were told about instances where these groups are faced with difficulties getting representation at their university’s freshers’ fayre or are subject to greater scrutiny from the students’ union during freshers’ week or have been banned entirely by the student union. Not being able to affiliate with the student union is problematic for societies as this means that the group is not able to access some of the university’s resources and organise events in the same way as affiliated societies.”

“They also face problems in arranging for external speakers. The Alliance of Pro-Life Students said that ‘pro-life societies are often given undue burden to host events’ and are ‘subject to mediations to which other societies are not... (and) that student unions were making arbitrary decisions about the views to which students should be exposed.’”

c) Labelling conservative Christian groups as “extremist”

Some Christian groups have been falsely labelled as “extremist” with the Prevent Programme being used to justify banning them:

“For example, written submissions from organisations like Faith to Faithless and Christian Action Research and Education said that the current definitions were being misapplied to them instead of applying to groups or individuals that could draw people into terrorism.”

The committee recommended that the government update its definition of extremism to reflect a recent court case (Salman Butt v Home Secretary) in which the judge ruled that activity was only extremist if it presented a risk of “ drawing others into terrorism” The UCCF’s evidence stated:

“In the 140 years of university CU activity, there have been no accusations of incitement to violence or terrorism reported.”

4. Examples of freedom of speech being restricted in universities

The Committee described the following examples as “Unacceptable incidents where freedom of speech has been restricted by student activities:”

  1. “Disruption at a talk by a spokesperson from the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain, Maryam Namazie, at Goldsmiths University in December 2015, which was significantly disrupted by members of the university’s Islamic society.”

  2. “An event called ‘Abortion in Ireland’ organised by the Oxford Students for Life society in November 2017 was disrupted by a protest organised by the Oxford Student Union Women’s Campaign. The protest was held inside the room and prevented the speakers from being heard for around 40 minutes of the event. Police were called and the event organisers were asked to move rooms twice before the event could proceed. Despite the disruptive nature of the protest, the Student Union published two statements in support of the protest the next day.”

  3. “Others told us that discussion of transgender issues were shut down by student activists who extend the original purpose of ‘no-platforming’ policies, (which was to prevent fascists from speaking at universities), to include individuals and feminists who take a critical view of trans-politics. Greg Jackson on behalf of Citizen GO told us that ‘critical discussion of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) issues is [ … ] perceived as an attack on people who identify as LGBT [ … ] students are routinely silenced/intimidated into silence by an [ … ] authoritarian ideology frequently found in students’ unions.’ We heard evidence of attempts by students to no-platform leading feminists and LGBT activists with a lengthy pedigree in campaigning for LGBT rights simply because they had defended the idea of women-only space.”

  4. “The Student Unions at the Universities of Kent, Warwick and Surrey argued that it is necessary to limit speakers who ‘cause harm through speech’ to protect marginalised groups, such as trans people, who suffer from a significant amount of discrimination in society at large.”

5. The Human Rights Committee expressly rejected this approach stating:

“We are concerned that such an approach is detrimental to free speech and could prevent certain debates and viewpoints being heard.”

“Student societies should not stop other student societies from holding their meetings. The right to protest does not extend to stopping events entirely.”

“Where student groups or bodies are inhibiting free speech rights in this way, universities should take disciplinary action to protect the right to free speech, in line with their statutory duty.”

“Universities must be places where open and uncensored debate (within the law) can take place so students can think for themselves and develop their own opinions on ideas which may be unpopular, controversial or provocative.”

6. The Committee also produced a helpful guide for universities and students setting out the legal basis for free speech

Our Religious Freedom

The findings of the parliamentary Joint Human Rights Committee in this report strongly support the warning Barnabas Fund has made that there is a serious risk to freedom of speech and freedom of religion in the UK.  We have also warned of the danger of what is in effect a new University Test Act – whereby students are required to affirm certain “politically correct” beliefs in order to study at university. A new law is needed to safeguard the religious freedoms that have developed in the UK over the last 500 years.

Sign our petition or find out more at: