Shouldn’t students’ unions be free from worrying about others’ free speech?

Jim Butcher is a Reader in in the School of Human and Life Sciences at Canterbury Christ Church University.

Wonkhe is a great advocate for students’ unions, but I think some of its critical response, and in some case dismissal, of the government’s free speech proposals is misplaced.

Students’ unions do a fine job in many areas, but is it not time to take seriously whether their authority in relation to regulating speech on campus is justified?

A recent Wonkhe piece dismisses as “preposterous” or “silly” the universities minister Michelle Donelan’s parliamentary answer that students’ unions’ authority to police legal speech and speakers, is unjustified. But her answer is, for many, eminently sensible – why should young people exploring the social, political and intellectual interests and commitments at university defer to a range of codes and policies that would not apply outside of the university?

The Charity Commission imposes certain obligations on students’ unions with regard to the activities of students’ union members and their societies. But these obligations are general, not specific. That means that the way they are interpreted and applied is substantially a product of students’ unions themselves, not the Charity Commission.

Contest time

Students’ unions have adopted numerous policies regarding safe space, speech codes and hate speech, with the scope and validity of each contested. These policies provide a rationale for over interpreting the Charity Commission guidelines. It is certainly far from “silly” or “preposterous” to question the right of an students’ union committee to be able to demand the speech of an invited speaker to vet as a condition of the event going ahead.

That this can be interpreted by student union activists as facilitating freedom of speech in their recent report Taking the Debate Forward is indicative of a separation of free speech from individual liberty in favour of a “free speech by committee” approach. For many of us, the latter is simply not free speech at all.

There are, of course, laws that impinge upon free speech. For example, many have protested against the role of the Prevent duty in chilling speech, and I have great sympathy with that. But as a bottom line I can see no case for the regulation of speech beyond either the law or that which applies outside of the university.

To advocate that students’ unions should have that authority is to treat them as voluntary private membership clubs with a commonly agreed ‘line’ or code of behaviour. They are not. Treating them as such is proving to be antithetical to what the university should be – a public institution, one in which liberty to express heterodox views should be paramount.

What is it good for

Students’ unions do a great job in many areas. But by their own admission they have become part of a ‘culture war’. Whilst they may blame this on the government, they themselves bear responsibility through their attempts to shape campus culture on issues such as sex / gender and acceptable language via committees and policies. They, and their advocates, should look to extricate themselves from this. That means broaching alternative models.

Students’ unions mediate between charitable status on the one hand, and the political, ideological and intellectual desires of a diverse population on the other. Mixing charitable status and politics is always problematic, something that humanitarian charities have found when they face allegations of having overstepped their charitable aims. So would it not be more productive to look at the possibility of separating out the laudable role that students’ unions play in sports, service provision, university committees and entertainments on the one hand, and independent student politics on the other, to the benefit of both?

Students’ unions could pursue their important role free from legitimate criticism that they are imposing upon the freedoms of other students and their societies. Students benefit greatly from a wide range of clubs and societies, relatively few of which are ‘political’ in nature. They promote community volunteering, bring musicians together to perform and facilitate pretty much any sporting or leisure activity you can think of. It is a shame that these facets of their work lack the public attention that culture war politics attract.

And political activism and debate could be allowed to operate free from the restrictions originating in Charity Commission status but ratcheted up through students’ unions’ speech codes and safe space policies (restrictions that do not apply to political or debating groups outside of the university)? This is not a radical proposal – it simply raises the rights of individual students, within the law, above the authority of committees.  No doubt there would be significant challenges in doing this as it runs counter to the longstanding role of SUs in overseeing, and in practice policing, student politics. I can see no reason in principle why these challenges could not be addressed.

A new settlement

Free speech and academic freedom are foundational to the role of a university, and universities – not students’ unions or indeed the government – should take responsibility for that. Students and staff should enjoy freedom of speech, including when organised around their political and social priorities in student societies. Students’ unions can facilitate the best opportunities for students in taking forward their hobbies, sports, and social and cultural commitments. It seems a logical division of labour: respecting individual freedom, the purpose of the university, the autonomy and vitality of young people exploring the social and political world at university, and the role of community minded young people looking to make a difference.

Isn’t it time we discussed a new settlement for students’ unions along these lines?

2 responses to “Shouldn’t students’ unions be free from worrying about others’ free speech?

  1. So your solution to your imagined threat to free speech is to excise all the democratic student representative mechanisms that result in policies and codes being developed and freely debated simply because you, individually, do not like them? Oh yes, that’s definitely how freedom of speech works…

    Congratulations on basically inventing the NUS, which has separate charitable and political arms for some of the reasons you outline (though not for your transparent purpose of trying to devalue SUs’ representative ability), and trying to pass it off as something new, by the way.

  2. Thankyou for your comment David.

    SUs are not particularly democratic – students are ‘joined’, and don’t join voluntarily. SUs are paid for directly from university authorities, via fees, not by students via voluntary subscriptions. Mostly small minorities vote and are active. This is wholly appropriate for service provision, sports, arts etc, but wholly inappropriate for regulating legal political speech for all students in a university. Freedom of speech is fundamentally an individual right, not a committee decision to be made on behalf of others. The latter is fine for a private club, but not for a public university.

    Free speech is not without risk, but as seems clear by now, regulating others’ legal speech only becomes a focus for intolerance and incivility – it carries a greater risk. It contributes to a culture whereby some feel, very understandably, that their views are deemed unwelcome. This limits universities’ public role, which depends upon an openness to heterodox views.

    Anyone who thinks that somehow student politics will collapse outside of the charity commission limited auspices of SUs seriously underestimates the capacity of students to organise and campaign. Perhaps it would lead to a type of students’ union that is truly independent of the universities / funders they sometimes take issue with (in the same way that trades unions have to be independent of employers to be effective). Reform may well help to shift campus debate away from pious moral condemnations of the airing of ‘offensive’ speech (which turns out to include mainstream and widely held views) to taking up those views philosophically and politically. In other words, it would undercut culture warriors of all stripes and help to place debate on a political and intellectual footing. That is to the benefit of anyone who wants to make a political case, and to an intellectual tolerance without which universities are diminished.

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