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Politics – Free speech under threat

May 2018

Freedom of speech is being curtailed at universities and colleges across the UK, a report from Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) has found.

In March, the JCHR published a report in which it warned excessive measures have been implemented at some universities. These measures, such as the banning of speakers or the carrying out of fierce protests during talks and outside meetings, have effectively prevented freedom of thought, debate and speech. There was evidence that some groups at universities have abused the need for ‘safe spaces’ and carried out ‘no platforming’ contrary to freedoms enshrined in UK law.

The report states: ‘Where speech leads to unlawful harassment of individuals or groups protected by the Equality Act 2010, then this is contrary to the institution’s duty to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, and would be unlawful.

‘Mutual respect and tolerance of different viewpoints are required to hold the open debates that democracy needs. Nonetheless the right to free speech includes the right to say things which, though lawful, others may find offensive. Unless it is unlawful, speech should normally be allowed’.

The report said freedom of expression is unduly interfered with when protests become so disruptive that they prevent speakers from speaking or intimidate those attending meetings. It also said student groups such as Christian Unions and debating societies should be allowed to invite speakers without facing bans or protests just because other groups oppose their appearance.

The report also said freedom of speech would be unlawfully restricted ‘if students are deterred from inviting speakers by complicated processes and bureaucratic procedures’.

The report has been welcomed by Christian advocacy group CARE. Dan Boucher, director of parliamentary affairs for the organisation, said: ‘Universities must be a place of free speech, where different ideas can be explored, otherwise they risk turning into mindless echo chambers’. The report has also been welcomed by secular groups.

JCHR member Fiona Bruce MP told BBC’s Today programme that it was ‘concerning’ that some pro-life students have experienced concerted attacks against them, while pro-life groups have been no-platformed by some universities.