Friday, July 01 2016

Report Urges Freedom of Speech on UK Campuses

 Universities UK released its report on Freedom of Speech on Campus: rights and responsibilities in UK universities.”

The Working Group responsible for the report was chaired by Professor Malcolm Grant, Provost of University College London and member of the Caldicott Inquiry which investigated claims that Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab had been radicalized during his student years at UCL (claims the Caldicott report unequivocally rejected).

In his introduction, Professor Grant argues that “Universities need to go beyond the minimum prescribed by law to ensure openness and transparency in their internal relations...This is to engage, and not to marginalise, different cultures.”

He adds that “Universities need also to ensure that potentially aberrant behaviour is challenged and communicated to the police where appropriate. But it is emphatically not their function to impede the exercise of fundamental freedoms, in particular freedom of speech, through additional censorship, surveillance or invasion of privacy.”

The report has been one year in the making and activities on university campuses across the country have given the working group’s members much food for thought.

The cancellation of the German Society’s event at LSE, which was due to feature Thilo Sarrazin, or Oxford University’s hosting of Dr Zakir Naik via satellite link this week, are just a couple of cases where universities have grappled with balancing freedom of speech with security and legal requirements on equality, public order and incitement to racial or religious hatred.

The UUK report makes a strong case for the preservation and advancement of freedom of speech on campus sating, “unless views can be expressed they cannot also be challenged.

“It is precisely by being places where ideas and beliefs can be tested without fear of control, and where rationality underpins the pursuit of knowledge, that universities have come to represent one of our most important safeguards against views and ideologies that divide and undermine our open society.”

The report restates the conditions espoused by PM David Cameron in his Munich address on the characteristics which mark out our “muscular liberalism”. Qualities such as “freedom of speech, freedom of worship, democracy, the rule of law and equal rights, regardless of race, sex or sexuality.”

The report notes the distinction between academic freedom and freedom of speech and observes that universities, like any other corporate body, are regulated by the law.  The UUK report states:

“The right of academic freedom is qualified by the expression ‘within the law’. This means that there are boundaries to academic freedom, but those boundaries are as set by the criminal and civil law, with the effect that acts which are unlawful are not protected. It is therefore the law that constrains the requirement to protect academic freedom, not a university’s choices.

“Freedom of speech has a special role in universities, specifically protected as a matter of law. The legislation, in the form of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986, emphasises the significance of free speech for universities by imposing a legal obligation on them to promote and protect it, and in particular states that the only constraints on the duty to secure freedom of speech are those imposed by the law. As with academic freedom, it is for the law, not for institutions, to set limitations.”

The report rejects the popular notion that universities are hotbeds of extremism noting that:

"The view of experts within government is that the higher education sector does not currently have a major problem with violent extremism."

The report also notes the important role universities play in provoking thought, debating ideas and enabling students to engage in critical thinking. It observes:

“Indeed by being places of debate universities are one of our most important pillars of civil society, and represent a safeguard against forces that divide and undermine society. If universities are to be the innovative and dynamic organisations that push back the boundaries of knowledge in areas of science, social sciences and the humanities, they must also be places where differing and difficult views can be brought forward, listened to and challenged.

“The Dearing Report provides a useful comment stating that one of the four main purposes of higher education is:

“…to play a major role in shaping a democratic, civilised, inclusive society.””

The UUK report notes the challenges posed by Islamophobia and anti-semitism on university campuses and the need to have strategies in place to deal with this. The report states:

“…if there were robust evidence of significant antisemitism or Islamophobia on campus, steps would need to be taken to address those specific developments.”

The report also surveys the implementation of equality legislation and the requirements of the law on incitement to racial or religious hatred. It notes, “Tolerance and respect for opposing viewpoints, and the right to hold and express those opinions, are central to the preservation of the right to freedom of speech and entirely compatible with the fostering of good relations.”

On the weaker protection afforded to Muslim students on campus, the report highlights the exemptions that apply on incitement to religious hatred which don’t apply to incitement to racial hatred.

The report notes that:

“There is a specific exemption in the legislation relating to religious hatred which acknowledges that  the offences should not be applied ‘in a way which prohibits or restricts discussion, criticism or expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule, insult or abuse of particular religions or the beliefs or practices of their adherents or of any other belief system or the beliefs or practices of its adherents, or proselytising or urging adherents of a different religion or belief system to cease practising their religion or belief systems.’”

And Annex C of the report, on the summary of the legal framework within which universities must operate, the report usefully notes that “It will be noted that the focus of these offences [incitement to religious hatred] is on threatening words or behaviour but not insulting or abusive words or behaviour. Further, as the offences all involve the intent to stir up religious hatred, the defences available in relation to racial hatred do not apply. Intent is a necessary ingredient of the offences – it is not sufficient to show that religious hatred was likely to be stirred up.”

The greater burden of proof required to prosecute on grounds of incitement to religious hatred has already been raised by the CPS and the Black Officers Association in their frustrated attempts to prosecute the BNP for distributing leaflets that foment anti-Muslim hatred.

Speaking to The Guardian on the UUK report, James Brandon of the government funded Quilliam Foundation said that the report failed to distinguish between the legitimate exercise of free speech and inciting hatred. He said:

"It also does not give clear advice about how universities should deal with suspected hate-preaching on campus or how they can support students who seek to challenge such hate-preaching themselves."

Perhaps Mr Brandon should read again the section of the report on universities being regulated by legislation on incitement to racial and religious hatred, equality legislation and the Public Order Act. The report is very clear that universities are governed by criminal and civil law on these matters and not by other special provisions.

Last Updated on Friday, 18 February 2011 18:17

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