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Freedom of speech helps charity, and society thrive – but it’s not an absolute right

Aarti Thakor from the Charity Commission introduces revised guidance for students' unions on freedom of speech
This article is more than 5 years old

Aarti Thakor is Director of Legal Services at the Charity Commission, the independent regulator and registrar of charities in England and Wales.

As registrar of the 167,000 charities in England and Wales, we are witness every day to the outstanding role these organisations play in bettering society. Charities are at their best when they contribute to civil society by building social cohesion, tolerance and breaking down barriers of discrimination.

One of the more spirited and lively examples of this comes from a group not always recognised as charities by the public or indeed by their members – students’ unions. As charities working to advance education they promote or engage in analysis, debates or discussions often on sensitive issues. They challenge traditional ideas and launch progressive dialogue which can develop thinking and help society thrive.

Freedom of speech is not in conflict with any of this. In fact, it is a fundamental consideration for those that run many types of charities. Education and learning cannot move forward unless ideas are open to rigorous challenge and healthy debate.

Avoiding the risk of harm

Freedom of speech does not, however, negate trustees’ important duties to put a charity’s best interests first and limit the undue risk of harm.

The Commission produces guidance to help trustees fulfil those duties. However, we have recognised that our guidance in this area has not always been read in the manner in which it was intended and has not done enough to highlight the centrality of freedom of speech to charities with purposes to advance education. We acknowledge that this may have caused difficulty in decision-making for some trustees.  

In our evidence and response to the Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry, we promised to address that, which is why we are today publishing updated guidance that will help trustees to make good decisions for their members. Our ‘Protecting charities from harm’ toolkit has been amended to help trustees manage some of the challenges associated with hosting speakers and debates.

What can charities do?

This is nothing new and the Commission’s position on this has not changed. We have, though, shifted the tone of this guidance so that it sufficiently stresses what charities can do, and supports trustees in recognising, managing and mitigating risks to their charities.

We want to see charities reaching their full potential. These changes will help those that run students’ unions and other charities maximise the impact of their charities while complying with the law.  The important duties placed on trustees are not intended to frustrate students’ unions or any other charities – quite the opposite.

By balancing their duties to ensure their charity’s activities are beneficial rather than harmful, trustees can allow emotive subjects to be discussed and debated, opinions to be questioned and challenged without undue risk of harm.

By complying with our guidance, charities can promote and sustain freedom of speech and expression for their members, while maximising their benefit to society.

Safe spaces

Freedom of speech cannot trump everything else. It cannot be justified at any cost. People should feel safe in a charity’s presence. This is a basic expectation that we and the public rightly have of all organisations that enjoy the privilege of charitable status. It cannot be ignored.

In the context of a students’ union, trustees will need to show that any event is for the benefit of their members, and that it contributes to their purposes by creating an open, accessible space for learning and debate. In its very basic form, they should ensure their charity doesn’t breach the criminal law or other areas of relevant general law like equality law or defamation. But they must also ensure that speakers and ideas are open to challenge. Clearly, this does not prevent charities from hosting speakers considered to be unpopular or controversial.

Common sense dictates that if you want to host speakers with challenging views in order to advance education, charities should be inclusive, create space for challenge, and ensure the environment is sufficiently safe for those that wish to attend by putting some simple checks in place.

Ultimately managing these issues requires balance and good governance. Considered deliberation and careful thought are essential for all trustees to be able to achieve their purpose and act in the best interests of their charity and those they serve.

Decisions around freedom of speech will not always be easy. Yet it would be wrong to underestimate the ability or willingness of students’ unions to get governance right – they are professional organisations. Equipped with this revised guidance, they stand ready to navigate those situations that require challenging judgements.

Whether hosting debates, creating the space for the exchange of ideas, or supporting students to do this themselves through a myriad of clubs and societies, students’ unions and other educational charities contribute immensely to the much-valued charity sector that sets this country apart. These organisations stand for charity in its most literal sense – they are about changing lives and helping society thrive. They represent optimism and change.

2 responses to “Freedom of speech helps charity, and society thrive – but it’s not an absolute right

  1. One point to consider is that fringe speakers are themselves likely to be the target of actual violence and this is a point to consider when thinking about safety: does the duty of protection extend to those with controversial views or views likely to be considered offensive? I would suggest it likely does and if not should.

    Beyond this there should imo be safeguards put in place to avoid debates becoming unproductive “yelling matches” particularly in situations where one extreme group may draw towards themselves another extreme group who are strongly opposed in a manner that might well not lead to productive and decorous debate. But in all situations where there are likely to be learning outcomes I really think the onus is to find solutions to issues of harm and safety in vast preference to censorship.

    Particularly it often seems learning is *more* likely to occur when engaging with fringe material. Often the ideas people are more want to find offensive are those not commonly expressed within the current cultural context. Being responsibly informed about the existence of such views should lead the diligent, socially aware student to a broader understanding of the plurality of the world around them. Moreover, when often hearing the voices of those who hold (or seem to hold) genuinely offensive opinions we can, at our best, learn how to be tolerant, thoughtful, and to understand that behind even the ideas we may find most objectionable, there is nevertheless a human being.

  2. I find the premise of your argument false. The responsibility of organisers is to ensure a safe environment is had by all but it is the duty of participants to respect the essence of any debate and that is one of non violence, there are no ifs and buts. The problem with the whole premise of the ‘Freedom of speech helps charity, and society thrive…’ argument is that there was never or has ever been an absolute right but in suggesting ‘there is’ it then allows the possibility for an absolute ‘no’ and so serves to ‘close doors’ while profaning to do not such thing! People are imprisoned by a door not matter which side of it they stand and it is the essence of free speech to keep doors open and allow dialogue to flow. This disguised (but not very well) role of the charity commissioner to exhibit ‘fear’ in the minds of trustees for fear if they get it wrong and the resulting consequences ‘on the charity’ or do we mean them? It is simply unfettered control and make no mistake and it is not in my view the role of a quasi public order body to be putting fear in the minds of the people they serve. Please remember it is not people who should fear their governments but governments (and their proxies) that should …..

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