Universities can do more to protect free speech

Attention is turning to the mechanisms higher education institutions have in place to safeguard external speakers and events.

For universities and colleges in England and Wales, these include having mandatory codes of practice in their governance documents to protect freedom of speech on campus.

Too bureaucratic?

Despite being required by law, no guidelines exist to show what one of these codes of practice on freedom of speech ought to look like. As a result, some codes of practice in operation in the sector have recently been dubbed “too complicated and bureaucratic” – including by Michael Barber, chair of the Office for Students (OfS), speaking at an evidence session for the Joint Committee for Human Rights (JCHR) earlier this year. Yet, with Barber also ruling out a role for the OfS in creating “a simplified code of practice” in this area, the need for an alternative source of guidance is clear.

New report released

Based on an analysis of a sample of 20 codes of practice on freedom of speech already employed across the sector, the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has today published a practical guide building on what works, as well as what does not, in existing university free speech policies. The report, entitled Cracking the code: A practical guide for university free speech policies, is intended to help higher education institutions optimise policies and procedures protecting freedom of speech, to ensure different ideas and opinions continue to be expressed and debated within the law on university premises.

Causes for concern

The report finds some worrying inconsistencies in existing codes of practice. Despite rapid advancements in digital technologies, institutional policies largely fail to cover events or speakers communicating via methods of remote access, such as Skype or video- and teleconferencing. Many also differ widely in what constitutes a public meeting – with some codes covering gatherings of just three people or more, while others refer to large-scale events such as lectures, seminars and public performances. Most strikingly, new forms of communication enabled by social media tend to be ignored in existing codes altogether.

Our analysis of current policies also reveals that universities and colleges are failing to consider the full breadth of their codes’ readership and user groups. Most institutions, for example, fail to provide their policies in alternative formats, such as braille or audio, or, at the very least, fail to announce these different versions exist. In some institutions, codes of practice protecting freedom of speech and their supporting documentation are even housed on “members only” areas of institutional websites, making them difficult to locate by external speakers and the general public and, ultimately, raising concerns about openness and transparency.

Practical tips

Based on our observations, the report offers higher education institutions practical suggestions to ensure codes of practice on free speech are truly fit for purpose. Sometimes it is the most obvious things that get overlooked when it comes to implementing free speech policies, such as neglecting to make available the most recent iteration of the codes or failing to ensure regular and timely review processes are in place.

The guide equally draws attention to the content and format of the codes. It encourages, for example, the use of hyperlinks as well as written web addresses to ensure the policies are optimised for use both online and in “hard copy”. It also suggests supplementary material be easily signposted or hosted in the same document to facilitate understanding of the necessary processes and procedures.

A welcome addition

Peter Tatchell, the prominent human rights activist, has provided a foreword to the guide and welcomes its suggestions as “sound and helpful”. As he sees it: “As the UK faces the challenges of Brexit, right-wing populism, Islamist extremism and the demands of marginalised communities like trans people, free and open debate on all issues will become more important than ever”.

As debates roll on about whether free speech is being properly enabled within UK higher education institutions, then, it is hoped the guide will help institutions to focus on the practicalities of facilitating free speech – in an age when there are certainly more voices to be heard and more ways of hearing them.

As the report’s author, I hope the guide becomes a useful addition to university governance tools in the months and years ahead. From next month, I will be moving on from HEPI to work as the Policy Adviser for higher education to Sam Gyimah, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation. So, as this will now be my final HEPI report (for the time being at least!), I hope it makes a positive contribution to the sector to help universities and colleges to facilitate free speech in the future, not frustrate it.

 

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