Freedom of Speech Contents

3The scale of the problem

28.The Government has repeatedly expressed concerns about the impact of student led activities such as “no platforming” and “safe space” policies on freedom of speech in universities.21 For example, in December 2017, the then Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Joseph Johnson MP explicitly criticised student led activities like ‘no platforming’ and ‘safe space’ policies which he argued were being used to “stifle” discussion and debate.22 He cited student protests against events featuring “prominent gay rights and feminist campaigners such as Peter Tatchell and Julie Bindel, and more recently the proposal by some students at Oxford’s Balliol College to deny the Christian Union a space at a Fresher’s Fayre” as examples of where groups have sought to “shut down debate altogether [rather] than to confront dissenting ideas or uncomfortable arguments.”23

29.The media has also given prominence to claims that ‘no platforming’24 and ‘safe space’25 policies, are suppressing freedom of speech in universities.26 There is a perception that current generation of students are unwilling to hear views which are different to their own.

30.Similar problems arise when assessing the online magazine, Spiked’s, Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) project, which was launched in 2015, which is widely reported by the media. Spiked claim that censorship in universities is a “chronic problem” and that restrictions on free speech are increasing each year.27

31.Spiked’s research methodology has been contentious. Some of the policies examined include free speech and external speaker policies; bullying and harassment policies; equal opportunities policies; no platform and safe space policies. Critics claim the rankings mark universities and student unions down for having a zero-tolerance approach to harassment and bullying, take actions and policies out of context,28 and merely replicate points made in previous reports - taking down those earlier reports so the duplication is less evident. During oral evidence, Professor Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor at the University of Sussex, critiqued Spiked for including “things that are not relevant to the discussions around free speech” in their analysis and whipping up “moral panic” to suggest “that universities are trying to inhibit very legitimate debate.”29

32.Professor Dennis Hayes helped construct Spiked’s Free Speech University Rankings. He told us that he accepted free speech should be within the law,30 but in our view the rankings could mark universities down for complying with the law. For example, in the 2018 results, the University of Leeds and Newcastle University received red rankings for statements in their protocol on freedom of speech and Transgender policies respectively which could equally be read as merely setting out what was needed to stay within the law (see below):

Box 3: University of Leeds protocol on freedom of speech

“Similarly, the University [of Leeds] would not seek to prevent or inhibit spoken or written criticism of the state of Israel; it would not however allow criticism of Israel to be expressed in a form which was or might reasonably be taken to be anti-Semitic, just as it would not allow, to take another example, the expression of views intended to stir up religious hatred against Muslims.”

Source: University of Leeds, Freedom of Expression Protocol

Box 4: Newcastle University Transgender Policy

“Transphobic propaganda, in the form of written materials, graffiti, music or speeches, will also not be tolerated. The [Newcastle] University undertakes to remove any such propaganda whenever it appears on the premises.”

Source: Newcastle University, Transgender Policy31

33.It is for this reason we undertook our student union survey and launched our student forum to establish if students did indeed feel free speech is being undermined. The information we gathered from these showed that although there were real free speech issues, there was also a widespread view that free speech was not overly inhibited and that it was valued by students.

34.This was confirmed in written and oral evidence. Sir Timothy O’ Shea, Vice-Chancellor and Principal, University of Edinburgh, told us “[w]e currently have about four or five speaker-led events a day, so about 1,300 a year” and Professor Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor, University of Sussex, assured us of the importance he and other Vice-Chancellors gave to the duty to ensure free speech.32 The Guild of Students at the University of Birmingham told us that in the year 2016–17, out of 779 external speaker requests, only three were rejected and this was due to the “requests arriving too late to process.”33 Even where things go wrong, such as the protests at Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg MP’s speech at the University of the West of England on 2 February 2018, the difficulties can be caused by outsiders, rather than students or the university itself.34 Jonathan Wallcroft, President of the Politics and International Relations Society at the University of West of England, responsible for arranging that event, told us:

“I myself have certainly never experienced any form of censorship [ … ] we were able to invite Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg MP without any meaningful opposition from the Student Union [ … ] we had a speaker from the Israeli embassy coming the week before. When you add those two things up together and add the fact that the Student Union was incredibly supportive and gave us everything that we needed for them, I find it hard to see evidence for creeping censorship, at least at our university”.35

35.The press accounts of widespread suppression of free speech are clearly out of kilter with reality. During our inquiry, we have heard first hand from all the key players in the university setting, including students, student society and student union representatives, vice-chancellors and university administration staff. A large amount of evidence suggests that the narrative that “censorious students” have created a “free speech crisis” in universities has been exaggerated.36 In the survey we sent out to student unions, 25 out of 33 student union officers who responded told us that the restriction of free speech in universities was not a problem at their university,37 while Student Union Presidents, Patrick Kilduff and Frida Gustafsson, told us that they had never banned or no platformed a speaker, outside of the six organisations listed on their student union’s official ‘no platform’ policy (which is replicated from the official NUS No Platform policy).38 However, as the Minister for Universities, told us “just as important is what is hard to measure: the large number of events which do not happen at all, either because organisers are worried about obstruction or because the overzealous enforcement of rules makes them seem more trouble than they are worth [ … ] some of this is quite difficult to gather evidence for.”39

36.Two of the incidents which are most commonly cited (including by the previous Universities Minister40) as evidence of students restricting free speech by “no platforming” speakers are student protests at Germaine Greer’s appearance at the University of Cardiff in 2015, and the refusal of a NUS Officer to share a platform with Peter Tatchell at Canterbury Christ Church University in 2016. But in both these cases the speaker’s freedom of speech was not curtailed as they were not stopped from giving their talks. On the contrary, as Professor Colin Riordan, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cardiff, said, the Germaine Greer incident should be held “up as an example of us valuing these things and protecting academic freedom.”41 These are actually examples where students manifested their right to freedom of expression through peaceful protest or refusing to share a platform with someone.

37.Any inhibition on lawful free speech is serious, and there have been such incursions, but we did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested. There are real problems which act as disincentives for students to put on challenging events and whilst most student union officers who responded to our survey (comprising 33 responses in all) say they are confident that they and their companions can speak freely, such disincentives could be having a wider ‘chilling effect’, which is hard to measure. A much broader survey of students’ opinion would be needed to assess levels of confidence amongst the student body as a whole.


22 Gov.UK, Free speech in the liberal university, 26 December 2017

23 Gov.UK, Free speech in the liberal university, 26 December 2017

24 Individual student unions will democratically decide if they wish to have a no platform policy each year. According the NUS, the purpose of a ‘no platform’ policy is to prevent individuals or groups known to hold racist or fascist views from speaking at student union events and to ensure that student union officers do not share a public platform with such individuals or groups. See, NUS’ No Platform Policy: Key information, February 2017

25 ‘Safe space’ policies are guidelines produced by students’ unions that aim to encourage an environment on campus free from harassment and fear. They seek to restrict the expression of certain views or words that can make some groups feel unsafe. Debates take place within specific guidelines to ensure that people do not feel threatened because of their gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Not all students’ unions have safe space policies.

27 Spiked’s 2018 Free Speech University Rankings stated that ‘55% of universities actively censor speech, 39% stifle speech through excessive regulation, and just 6% are truly free, open places.’ See, Spiked, Free Speech University Rankings 2018

28 See Dr Carl Thompson (FSU0011). Also, see Q39, [Professor Adam Tickell, University of Sussex]

29 Dr Carl Thompson (FSU0011)

30 Q4 [Professor Denis Hayes, University of Derby]

31 See, University of Leeds, Freedom of Expression Protocol

32 Q36 [Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, University of Edinburgh, Professor Adam Tickell, University of Sussex]

33 Ellie Keiller, on behalf of University of Birmingham Guild of Students (FSU0077)

34 BBC News, Scuffle at Rees-Mogg student event at UWE Bristol, 3 February 2018; Q79 ( Mr Jacob Rees-Mogg MP)

35 Q86 [Jonathan Wallcroft, Vice-President, Politics and International Relations Society, University of the West of England, Bristol]

36 See Q48 [Amatey Doku, National Union of Students]; Dr Carl Thomson (FSU0011); Universities UK (FSU0010); Northumbria Students (FSU0013); Q19 [Ben Ryan, Theos Think Tank]; Warwick Students’ Union (FSU0094); Professor Alison Scott-Baumann with Simon Perfect (FSU0075); Q37 [Frida Gustafsson, President, University of Sussex Student Union]; Dr Petra Boynton (FSU0036); London South Bank University (FSU0027); Sheffield Hallam University (FSU0054); Trinity Saint David Students’ Union (FSU0031); The Union of Brunel students (FSU0032)

37 See Annex 2 for full results

38 See, Q41 [Patrick Kilduff, University of Edinburgh, and, Frida Gustafsson, University of Sussex]

39 Q68 (Mr Sam Gyimah MP, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation)

40 Gov.UK, Free speech in the liberal university, 26 December 2017

41 Q12 [Professor Colin Riordan]




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