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Who should meet the costs of campus free speech?

Jim Dickinson visits the National Archives in Kew to investigate proposals on campus free speech from the 1980s
This article is more than 3 years old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

It happens all the time. A student society invites a controversial, high profile speaker onto campus. Everyone goes through the usual procedures – and concludes that the event will need security. But who should pay?

Whether it’s the students’ union, the society itself or the university, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s guidance on freedom of speech on campus dodges whether it’s “reasonable” for student fee income to be spent on alt-right celebrity security rather than, say, teaching and learning. But it’s an issue that never seems to go away, and is central to the contemporary controversy surrounding external speakers.

It’s worth remembering quite how long the issue has been around for. The story of “No Platform” policies and legislation in 1986 that supposedly outlawed them has been told before on the site – just as they do today, moral panics over the “banning” of speakers by students dominated the press in the 70s and 80s.

Formal votes to ban speakers have always been rare, but visits made by MPs to universities that ended in disruption at the time were lumped in and labelled as “no platforming” – evidence of the policy in practice despite the fact that they had often been invited and scheduled to speak by the SU.

Things escalated. John Carlisle MP, an apologist for the apartheid regime in South Africa, went on something of a campus tour – prompting NUS President Phil Woolas to claim that he and others were deliberately trying to “provoke incidents”.

In turn, Education Secretary Keith Joseph wrote to NUS President Phil Woolas with a complaint that could have been written today:

The saddest aspect of this new relapse into the dark ages is that it manifests itself… in the institutions of advanced learning that should be the crucibles of debate and discussion. In a university or a polytechnic, above all places, there should be room for discussion of all issues, for the willingness to hear and to dispute all views including those that are unpopular or eccentric or wrong.

Things came to a head when Conservative minister Leon Brittan visited Manchester in 1985. The students’ union did all it could to ensure the meeting went ahead – but students self-organised a demonstration protesting the government’s policies, and over 500 students turned up with just hand made leaflets and posters to draw their attention.

Brittan being Home Secretary, the event was heavily attended by Police – and as he started to get pelted by eggs, riot squad officers charged into the crowd and made a string of arrests.

The “Battle of Brittan” meant something had to be done – and led eventually to the Education Act 1986, and the resultant codes of practice that we know in universities today.

Testing testing

It’s what happened next that’s interesting. Within weeks of the legislation in 1986 passing there were attempts by various “Federation of Conservative Students” (FCS) societies to test its effectiveness – notably the Times reported that Bristol (Student) Conservatives were thinking of inviting a speaker from the National Front to the university to test the effectiveness of the new law.

Where was this coming from? There were a number of backbench conservative MPs who were engaged in testing SUs and universities with the cooperation and organisation of FCS – a nationally planned speaking programme had been created with a small group of MPs close to FCS led by the “maverick” Enoch Powell.

After a while the issue disappeared off the agenda as Norman Tebbit, then Chair of the Conservative Party, closed down the FCS following allegations of vandalism, vote rigging and accusing Harold Macmillan of being a “war criminal”.

But the issue lingered on – and central to the ongoing row then (as it is today) was who should be paying for the costs of security at a controversial event.

The successor body to the FCS was called the “Conservative Collegiate Forum”, and in 1989 it produced a pamphlet on campus freedom of speech which seems very familiar today. It carried a string of case studies on campus events – many of which had been generated by the FCS speaker tour – where students had threatened counter-protests when a controversial, right-wing speaker was invited.

This usually led to the university or SU having to put on security, and often unless the society making the invitation was willing to meet the costs, the event would not go ahead. FCS saw this as a crafty way around the law.

An unusually popular Early Day Motion commended the report – and proposed that the legislation on campus freedom of speech be enforced through funding levers:

Later that year Conservative MP Tim Janman took the idea on a stage. His  amendment to an Education Reform Bill would have prevented universities from imposing “a charge for security on the organisers of any meeting”. He was persuaded to drop the amendment in return for assurances that the issue would be looked at again. It never really did re-emerge legislatively, but we’ve never really known why.

Digging into the past

As such, a trip I took to look at Cabinet Office papers in the National Archive in Kew was fascinating – because it revealed quite how close universities and SUs came to being required by law to pay for imposed security.

A never published draft consultative paper from later in 1989 picked up Janman and the FCS’ gripes, centring on “violence and intimidation” when some tried to exercise their right to free speech. And having consulted with vice chancellors, there was a proposed solution – make the students’ unions pay.

The idea that SUs should pick up the tab was an interesting one – not least because SUs rightly argued that they often weren’t directly inviting speakers themselves. But the government two ways around that issue – make societies register with the university, and make students’ unions pay regardless:

For obvious reasons, a proposal requiring SUs to pay for security regardless of whether a student society was even part of the SU would likely have bankrupted many of them. And anyway, wouldn’t this just lead to some student societies repeatedly inviting controversial speakers to attack SUs? The proposal had a convoluted way around that too:

Of course, the logical next step was then to propose that universities themselves should be in the business of approving (or not) the list of societies at a given university – and some contortions to make the proposals fit universities with collegiate strictures:

The idea was that SUs become principally responsible the maintenance of a culture (and the costs of) freedom of speech on campus:


In the end, despite extensive discussions, the proposal was never published and the idea pretty much disappeared as politics drifted to the centre. Universities and their students’ unions continued to host external speakers with little controversy – with only the odd high-profile far-right speaker, and a spate of controversies in the 1990s surrounding Islamic fundamentalist groups, serving to  rekindle the security costs debate until recently.

The final trace of the proposal is mentioned in an letter from the Attorney General to Prime Minister John Major in 1990, that argued that the whole thing was probably unnecessary – because the few cases that had caused the concern had been exaggerated:

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