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Why it is so important to protect free speech in universities

  • 27 June 2019

The Higher Education Policy Institute has published a robust defence of free speech in universities, Free Speech and Censorship on Campus (HEPI Occasional Paper 21) by Corey Stoughton. The author is the Advocacy Director and previous Acting Director of the Human Rights organisation Liberty and served as senior counsel to the Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights in the US Department of Justice under President Obama.

The report recognises the concerns of those who wish to restrict free speech as a way of protecting others, but concludes that restrictions on free speech usually end up being counter-productive.

Despite the UK’s Government’s strong rhetoric supporting free speech in universities, the paper claims the current single biggest threat to free speech on UK campuses currently comes from the Government’s own Prevent programme.

Corey Stoughton, the author of the report, said:

Too often, the defence of free speech rests on unsatisfactory platitudes about the “marketplace of ideas” and answering bad speech with more speech. However, recognising that not everyone has equal access to speech, and that some people are disproportionately harmed by speech, doesn’t justify giving powerful institutions more power to censor speech.

On the contrary, honest confrontation of legacies of discrimination and unequal distribution of power allow us to see how censorship replicates those problems and to focus on the real threats – like the UK Government’s ill-conceived Prevent strategy, which has had a demonstrable chilling effect on free speech in universities.’

Nick Hillman, Director of HEPI, said:

We are delighted to be publishing this nuanced but firm defence of free speech. It challenges students, universities and, above all, Government Ministers to be more careful when they are tempted to impose new restrictions on free expression.

There are few justifications for limiting free speech beyond current laws. That is true whether it is students wanting to block provocateurs from speaking or Government Ministers mixing up the prevention of terrorism with blocking legitimate free expression.’

Notes for Editors

  1. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) was established in 2002 to influence the higher education debate with evidence. We are UK-wide, independent and non-partisan. We are funded by organisations and universities that wish to see a vibrant higher education debate as well as through our own events. HEPI Occasional Papers are written by experts who want to challenge current thinking as well as to inform. 
  2. This paper builds on HEPI’s previous work on free speech in universities, including Keeping Schtum? What students think of free speech (May 2016), An analysis of UK university free speech policies prepared for the Joint Committee for Human Rights (February 2018) and Cracking the code: A practical guide for university free speech policies (July 2018).

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