The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has today published a new report on free speech with a Foreword by human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. The report serves as a practical guide to help higher education institutions secure freedom of speech on campus.

As debates roll on about whether free speech is being unduly restricted on university premises throughout the UK, attention is turning to the mechanisms higher education institutions have in place to safeguard external speakers and events. For universities and colleges in England and Wales, these include mandatory codes of practice to protect freedom of speech. Yet, with no set guidelines for these codes of practice, some policies have recently been dubbed overly bureaucratic, too complex and off-putting.

Based on a close examination of existing codes, Cracking the code: A practical guide for university free speech policies provides advice to higher education institutions on what works, as well as what does not.

The report finds some worrying loopholes in existing codes of practice, including:

  • overlooking new types of meetings afforded by social media and digital technologies;
  • failing to publish updated policies following internal reviews;
  • neglecting to provide codes in a wide range of accessible formats such as braille or audio;
  • not hosting codes in the public domain; and
  • not linking to necessary supplementary materials such as room booking forms and risk assessment protocols.

This new guide is intended to assist university boards and committees when formulating or updating codes of practice on freedom of speech to ensure policies are as efficient and user-friendly as possible.

Dr Diana Beech, HEPI Director of Policy and Advocacy and author of the guide, says:

Free speech has long been at the heart of higher education. The duty to protect it is about much more than adhering to legal protocol, but preserving the essence of university life.

We are now living in an age where student populations are diversifying fast and digital technologies are enabling new forms of communication. This presents fresh challenges for institutions, with more voices to be heard and more ways of hearing them.

Against this complex backdrop, it is more important than ever that universities and colleges put in place codes of practice to ensure freedom of speech thrives. This guide helps institutions to optimise free speech policies to ensure different ideas continue to be expressed and debated within the law. Codes of practice should always facilitate free speech, not frustrate it.

Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner and author of the report’s Foreword, says:

I welcome this report, which offers institutions some practical guidance on what good codes of practice look like.

The right to free speech is hard won and not always easy to protect. This report helps us to protect it.

As the UK faces the challenges of Brexit, right-wing populism, Islamist extremism and the demands of marginalised communities like trans people, free and open debate on all issues will become more important than ever. And universities and students have a vital, precious role to play in these debates.