OSFL Statement on the Report on Freedom of Speech in Universities

by Oxford Students for Life

OSFL members ready to share the hope that the pro-life movement brings, uninhibited by concerns about freedom of speech

Last week saw the release of a report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights about Freedom of Speech in Universities. The report synthesises evidence from a wide range of groups and sources, discussing a large variety of cases where students have had their free speech limited in the university setting. Some of the factors identified as inhibiting free speech include no platforming policies and safe spaces, misapplication of the prevent duty, and over-zealous bureaucracy.

While it recognises that the media has exaggerated the extent of the suppression of free speech (Paragraph 35), the report acknowledges that there have been incidents where free speech has been inhibited. The protest organised by the Women’s Campaign against our Abortion in Ireland event in November 2017 forms part of the body of evidence indicating that some protests deny freedom of speech to those against whom they are protesting. In our press release at the time of the event, we noted that ‘WomCam of course have a right to freedom to expression. But a right to freedom of speech does not mean the right to prevent other people from speaking’, a principle which has been affirmed by this report, which asserts that ‘when protests become so disruptive that they prevent the speakers from speaking or intimidate those attending’, then ‘freedom of expression is unduly interfered with’ (Paragraph 42). It is encouraging that the report stresses the duty of universities to ‘initiate disciplinary measures if individual students or student groups seek to stop legal speech, or breach the institution’s code of conduct on freedom of speech’ (Paragraph 50), and for the police to intervene in cases where protesters are committing criminal acts.

The report acknowledges that there are sometimes proper, legal restrictions on free speech, ‘where speech leads to unlawful harassment of individuals or groups protected by the Equality Act 2010’ (Paragraph 54). However, it is also noted that free speech encompasses the right to say things which others may find offensive, and that ‘unless it is unlawful, speech should normally be allowed’ (Paragraph 54).

Another important area highlighted by the report is the subtle effects of bureaucracy which can act as a ‘disincentive’ for students in organising events and can thus have a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech (Paragraph 37). This is an issue which has affected OSFL in recent times; problems related to bureaucracy which we have encountered in the last few months include delayed response time to inquiries about room bookings (in one case, a request submitted seven weeks in advance was only finalised five weeks later), and difficult conditions imposed on room usage such as not being allowed to take photos, only being allowed to advertise events internally, and having to pay for a security guard for our events. It is therefore encouraging that the report recognises the hurdles that face societies in exercising their right to freedom of speech and the subtle, but nonetheless serious, ways in which bureaucracy can be inhibiting.

In light of OSFL’s situation, in which protests are a potential reality, the report’s recommendation that security should be provided for events where necessary, and that this should be funded by the university (Paragraph 95), is very welcome, as small student societies such as OSFL will struggle if the burden and cost of defending their right to freedom of speech and preventing protests is laid at their feet.

Given the challenges to free speech noted in the report, it is a relief that several measures to be taken to secure free speech in the university setting are laid out. In addition to the measures already mentioned, the recent introduction of the Office for Students is also discussed, with its role denoted as that of monitoring and overseeing free speech within universities (Paragraph 27). The denouncement of the use of safe spaces insofar as they seek to inhibit free speech (Paragraph 6) is also encouraging.

Following the publication of this report, OSFL are hopeful that we will be able to continue our work in promoting a culture of life at the university uninhibited. We hope that the proposals for the protection of free speech are implemented as outlined in the report, and that the Office for Students will commit to removing the barriers and burdens inhibiting free speech, such that freedom of speech in universities is protected and promoted.

Freedom of Speech in Universities: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/jt201719/jtselect/jtrights/589/589.pdf [Accessed on 28/03/2018]