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Free speech on campus: new HEPI research shows universities can do more to protect it

  • 19 July 2018
  • By Diana Beech

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.

1 comment

  1. Bill Cooke says:

    Things I have seen in British Universities in the Last 2 years. Not singling one out, especially mine.

    1. Adminstrators insisting course titles are changed to their preferred title, despite having no expertise in the field.
    2. Administrators doing the same with course content
    3. Very junior staff formally accused of ‘bullying’ their Vice Chancellor for generic twitter satire
    4. Sudden unexplained suspensions of staff active in the union
    5. The explosion of Non-Disclosure Activities
    6. Colleagues warned off researching whisteblowers (as a general category) because of the ethical problem of ‘reputational harm’
    7. Backstage arm twisting of academics to restrict research the impact of student racism, homophobia, and misogyny on academic staff and practice
    8. The unrestricted channeling of student ‘feedback’ on academics accents, appearance, discussion of contested views to those staff, causing personal distress
    9. The incorporation of the views and scores of those overtly racist and sexist student commentors into formal probationary and appraisal processes
    10. International colleagues of colour being singled out for hostile environment reporting and surveillance in ways not applied to their white equivalents (eg from Norway or Canada)
    11. Instructions from the ‘Human Resource Compliance Unit’ to log and report all visitors giving seminars and talks in my department to check their immigration status
    12. The obligation to produce my passport to universities paying me below the minimum wage so they can leverage my reputation and ’employ’ me as an external examiner.
    13. Colleagues of colour being refused external examiner roles (needed for promotion by EC staff) because their passports are not British/EU, and therefore their employment ‘too risky’

    But hey, No Platforming.

    Peter Tatchell, you have lost a great fan here.

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