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Policy Watch: The Office for Students on free speech

An Office for Students board paper examines the issue of free speech on campus. David Kernohan and Jim Dickinson take a look.
This article is more than 5 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

If you think the ongoing media circus about “no-platform” has been depressing so far, you’re going to be glad you are not on the Office for Students’ Board. Any intervention from our nearly-new regulator would be controversial, but last month’s Board meeting saw an eminently reasonable and sensible paper – one which is guaranteed to add fuel to an already febrile atmosphere.

Entitled “The Promotion and Protection of Free Speech”, the document begins with a summary of the (Joint Parliamentary Committee on Human Rights report) story so far, and offers a commitment that the OfS will proceed based on available evidence. And that’s the problem in a nutshell. As anyone who has followed this story in detail will tell you, there isn’t very much.

Evidence matters

For instance, to the JPCHR’s assertion that the sheer complexity of regulation around what can and can’t be said on campus is having a chilling effect on free speech, the OfS responds:

The OfS has found no evidence to demonstrate that fear and confusion over the Prevent duty is impacting free speech.

On the denial of platforms issue, it notes:

So far, the OfS has not received any evidence to demonstrate that provides are not using best efforts to tackle this problem on campus and to keep debate as civil as possible.”

Citing two of the most commonly quoted examples, Peter Tatchell and Germaine Greer, the paper emphasises:

In both cases, the speaker’s freedom of speech was not curtailed as both went on to speak.

These are all fair and reasonable summaries of the evidence. But, in strict terms, there isn’t really a problem. There is the perception of a problem – a perception that is amplified every time we see another round of “snowflake student” stories concerning restrictions on seldom-heard voices and opinions (like, for example, Nick Clegg) being heard on campus.

The problem with Nick Clegg

The Clegg tale is instructive. He had been due to attend a student society meeting in Sheffield (free speech), and student activists intended to stage a protest (free speech). The students’ union then did the right thing – working with the university and the society to ensure sufficient but affordable security was in place. But then Clegg indicated that he was thinking of not coming if there was going to be a protest – and that was enough for Guido Fawkes to argue that Clegg had been “no platformed” by students, and for the Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for Sheffield Hallam Laura Gordon to say “that a small group of extremists are so determined to shut down the free exchange of views”. Clegg no platformed himself by cancelling the meeting – but that’s not the narrative we’ll hear in the press.

Now, to us, if we want to hear what Nick Clegg thinks we can just listen to the news, or read his articles. Or follow him on twitter. The fact that we can’t hear him on the University of Sheffield campus because he doesn’t want to face the possibility of protest is neither here nor there.

Like Clegg, most free speech “martyrs” have plenty of other platforms to stand on, but OfS is conscious that some affected by these debates do not.

There is little doubt that minority groups may on occasions feel threatened and unsafe, that some groups cite barriers in having their voice heard, and that other groups are using debate to incite violence, racism or hatred. This external environment means some providers are feeling under pressure as they try to protect and promote freedom of speech.

Though institutions are already doing a lot to support those affected, OfS says that it is working with government, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and others, to develop detailed guidance to support institutions and students’ unions in providing consistent and accurate assistance. The OfS position is clear – it supports freedom of speech to the fullest extent permitted by the law – and the emphasis is on the “freedom to speak” end of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle.

Previous summaries of the legal context from both Universities UK and NUS (both of which were funded by Government) argue that some speech and behaviour should be restricted in pursuit of other legal and moral duties – the “freedom from harm” end of the same principle. A close look at the way any new guidance strikes the balance will be interesting, as will the way the issues are framed at a forthcoming Free Speech summit that OfS intends to stage.

Communication breakdown

There, is, unfortunately, not a lot that the OfS can directly do to address the noisier end of the commentariat. So the final section of the paper discusses the communications approach it will employ when such stories come to light.

There are expectations on the OfS to take a stance in the wider free speech debate but, with the debate becoming highly charged and emotive, the facts of a case are often distorted and the resultant media coverage can be reductive with key nuances getting overlooked. The OfS must ensure that, when it is asked for public comment, these nuances are not ignored.

To do this, it will develop an “unambiguous and clear” framework, to help decide

  • Whether it should comment
  • Who in the organisation should comment
  • How and where the comment will be made

There’s recognition that both reactive and proactive interventions may be needed. Annex B suggests that initial work has been done on developing generic material to respond to media requests, but that more work will follow.

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