Countdown to Reservations End Date
In March 2018, the Joint Committee on Human Rights conducted a report into the state of free speech in higher education institutions. Amongst other findings, the report concluded that there were a number of factors that risked undermining the principle of freedom of speech, including intimidatory behaviour by protestors, cumbersome bureaucracy imposed on event organisers, confusion over the Prevent duties, complicated guidance from the Charity Commission, and unnecessary regulatory complexity. The committee also flagged up “safe spaces” and “no-platforming” as problematic in the effort to uphold free speech across higher education. According to a 2017 survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), 76% of students expressed some support for no-platforming policies, while 60% felt that universities should never limit free speech. This exemplifies the confusion over how best to protect and promote free speech without breaking the law or compromising the safety and security of students.
In May 2018, Universities Minister Sam Gyimah called on higher education leaders to work together to create a unified set of guidelines to regulate free speech, commenting that the current situation is marked by a “dizzying variety of rules” which allows many universities and Student Unions to block discussion of controversial topics or unfashionable views. In an effort to remedy the situation, Mr Gymiah held a “free speech summit” with key sector partners in order to clarify the existing legal duties around free speech and develop new guidelines setting out core principles and expectations for higher education providers.
Furthermore, HEPI published a report in July 2018 entitled Cracking the code: A practical guide for university free speech policies, which highlighted loopholes in universities’ codes of conduct regarding free speech, and outlined practical advice on how the sector can act to improve protections of free speech on campus. Indeed, the Office for Student’s (OfS) regulatory framework includes a legal requirement for universities to have in place “robust and effective management and governance arrangements” to protect and promote freedom of speech, with powers to name, shame and fine institutions which fail in this statutory obligation.
However, universities must balance their free speech obligations with their statutory Prevent duties under the 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act. In September 2018, the OfS published its updated Prevent Duty: Framework for Monitoring, which adopts a revised risk-based approach to monitoring radicalisation in HE. This has to be undertaken alongside the safeguarding of free speech and expression, ensuring that any tensions between the two duties are minimised, without compromising the integrity of either.
In such a complex regulatory landscape, it is imperative that higher education institutions make a concerted effort to ensure that students, academics and invited speakers are afforded the ability to speak as freely as the law permits, whilst also strictly observing their Prevent duties. This will involve the cooperative development of a newly unified, clear, and holistic set of free speech guidelines which strikes the appropriate balance between free expression and protection from harm or radicalisation.
This one day forum will provide attendees with a comprehensive understanding of how to protect, promote and safeguard freedom of speech within universities. Delegates will have the opportunity to discuss topical issues surrounding free speech regulations, guidelines and policies with key bodies from across the Higher Education sector. Moreover, delegates will learn about how best to ensure freedom of speech is upheld without compromising or undermining alternative statutory obligations around protecting students from violence, intimidation, discrimination, harassment and radicalisation.
Key speakers confirmed:
• Michelle Russell, Director of Investigations, Monitoring and Enforcement, Charity Commission
• Jeremy Lefroy MP, Member, Joint Committee on Human Rights
• Stephanie Harris, Policy Analyst, Universities UK.
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