Freedom of Speech Contents



1.Freedom of speech is fundamental to democratic society. It is important we can argue for change, or to support the status quo. It is one of the fundamental rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Nonetheless like many rights, freedom of speech is not absolute. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights recognises that free speech must be balanced with other rights:

“1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”

2.Many of our witnesses emphasised the importance of free speech. It was perhaps put most eloquently by Peter Tatchell:

“Given that free speech is a very precious human right that, in past centuries, people gave their lives and liberty to defend, my own view is that there have to be really compelling reasons to restrict it. [ … ] Otherwise, I agree [ … ] that the best way to challenge bad ideas is with good ideas. If you simply ban someone, the ideas do not go away, and their supporters are not disabused of those ideas. However, if you challenge them in open debate, and give the evidence and counterarguments that will discredit them, you can lower their public estimation and standing. You may also persuade some of their followers that they were wrong to adhere to those ideas. That is the most likely way in which to change opinion and to defeat such bigoted views.3

3.One of our witnesses, Alyaa Ebbiary, a PhD student at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) gave us a striking example of how a confrontation with a protestor at a pro-Palestine event had encouraged her to set up an inter-faith dialogue society:

“When I saw the anger from this young man and the reaction that I got from some of my Jewish peers, it motivated me to set up a Muslim-Jewish dialogue society, which I spent a number of years being active in, and spent a number of years subsequently volunteering and organising interfaith initiatives between Muslims and Jews.

If I had not had that opportunity earlier, I would never have gone through that thought process or those kind of conversations. It really bothers me that there is this excessive scrutiny and curtailment of activism and free speech about Palestine campaigning”.4

4.This Report is about the right to speak freely within the law. UK law imposes some restrictions on speech such as prohibitions on harassment, or incitement to hatred. In an ideal world, debate would take place in a respectful and orderly fashion. However, provided speech is legal, the right to speak freely includes saying things which may shock or offend others. Further, freedom of association protects the right to peaceful protest.

Our inquiry

5.There have been repeated and high-profile claims that freedom of speech in universities is under attack. The media have reported controversies over speakers at universities, or about academics. Parliamentarians and the Government have raised concerns. The new OfS is expected to champion free speech as part of its role.5

6.We drew on students’ experience of freedom of speech in universities and in particular on the ability of students, student societies and student unions to invite external speakers and organise events at universities. While the inquiry covered institutions across the United Kingdom, this Report is focused on universities and on students in England. This is because evidence suggested that there were more acute concerns relating to free speech in universities in England than Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The regulatory regime operates differently in each jurisdiction, with different regulators for universities and student unions in the different UK jurisdictions. Moreover, universities in England and Wales have different obligations to secure free speech than do institutions in Scotland and Northern Ireland. We have, where appropriate, suggested that lessons are learned from experience in different UK jurisdictions.

7.We thought it important to establish to what extent there really was a problem and, if so, what were its causes. Our inquiry asked whether free speech was indeed being suppressed in universities and whether the Government’s new proposals to protect free speech were consistent with previous policy initiatives, such as the introduction of the Prevent duty in universities in September 2015. The Committee published an open call for evidence on 21 November 2017 along with a detailed set of questions, which served as the terms of reference for the inquiry.6

8.As part of this inquiry, we have conducted eight oral evidence sessions with a total of 34 witnesses. We also received 109 written submissions. All the evidence, both written and oral, can be viewed on our website.7 We are grateful to everyone who gave written or oral evidence. The quality and range of the submissions we received has aided our inquiry enormously. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) were given the opportunity to give oral evidence to us but told us that they were not in a position to do so. We note this with disappointment.

9.While written and oral evidence are invaluable, the Committee wanted the widest evidence base possible. To this end we:

We are grateful to everyone who contributed to this wider evidence gathering process.

Key findings

10.Our inquiry findings are explored in detail later on in the Report but in summary there are a number of factors which may interfere with freedom of speech at universities.

Box 1: Factors inhibiting freedom of speech

  • intolerant attitudes, often incorrectly using the banner of “no platforming” and “safe-space” policies;
  • incidents of unacceptable intimidatory behaviour by protestors intent on preventing free speech and debate;
  • unnecessary bureaucracy in organising events;
  • fear and confusion over what the Prevent duty entails;
  • regulatory complexity;
  • unduly complicated and cautious guidance from the Charity Commission;
  • concern by student unions not to infringe what they perceive to be restrictions.

11.We also found that many of the incidents in which free speech is restricted often revolve around discussion of key controversial or divisive issues, which can stir up strong emotions. Amongst the things around which there is emotional debate are speech which is thought to incite or support terrorism; pro-life or anti-abortion views; Transgender issues; Islamophobia; Israel/Palestine conflict; right wing vs left wing views; and Humanist/secular groups critiquing religion.

Structure of this Report

12.Chapter Two explains the legal context within which universities and student unions operate. Chapter Three looks at the scale of the problem. Chapter Four looks at the range of factors inhibiting freedom of speech. Chapter Five identifies how universities, student unions and students can move forward in a way which gives freedom of speech its due importance.

3 Q31 [Peter Tatchell]

4 Q22 [Ms Alyaa Ebbiary]

6 Freedom of Speech in Universities - Terms of Reference

Published: 27 March 2018 by authority of the House of Commons and House of Lords