Skip to main content

Freedom Of Speech (Universities And Institutions Of Higher Education)

Volume 91: debated on Tuesday 11 February 1986

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

3.56 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to safeguard the right of free speech in universities and institutions of higher education, including student unions; to establish the duties and powers necessary for the enforcement of this right; and for connected purposes.

The Bill should not be necessary and it is sad that it is. Free speech is central to universities and institutions of higher education. They, above all, should be looking for the widest possible boundary of free speech. It is there that new and old ideas should be put to the test and we should be able to think the unthinkable. That tradition has been widely challenged, especially in student unions, by the adoption of the practice known as the low platform policy. That means, in effect, that persons who hold views different from those who adopt such a policy are refused the opportunity to express those views within the precincts of the university.

All sorts of means are used to enforce the policy. Violence, blockades, megaphones, noise, spitting and the throwing of objects have been used in a most disgraceful manner. That has eaten into university traditions.

The right of free speech at universities is no more extensive than it is outside them. It is bound by the law of slander and the law against incitement to violence and racial hatred. If there were a need further to limit that law, it should be done in the House and not by a gang of Fascists masquerading as university students.

That practice is now widespread. There have been a number of examples in the city of Manchester. On 1 March last year, a leaflet was put out to prevent my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan) from speaking. The leaflet clearly says that he should be prevented from speaking. At the same university, my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) has been daubed with red paint. Recently, my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office was attacked and prevented from speaking. That matter is now under investigation.

Incidents occur not only in Manchester. Alas, they are now widespread throughout the country. In Nottingham, the South African ambassador was turned back from speaking, and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy, my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt)—not known as a rabid Right-winger—was refused access to the platform. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was drowned out by noise and megaphones at Nottingham and Bristol. At Warwick, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science was prevented from speaking. At York, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle) was prevented from speaking. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Proctor) has been stopped at Bristol and Bradford. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Parkinson) was stopped at Kingston polytechnic. Those cases can be multiplied elsewhere.

Outside speakers are not the only people involved; students are also involved. The chairman of the Conservative Association at Swansea was banned because it was said that merely to be a Conservative was to be a racist. In Aberystwyth, the Conservative Society was banned because it was affiliated to the Federation of Conservative Students.

This problem affects not only members of the Conservative party. The right hon. Member of Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) has been pelted at Sussex university. The most dishonourable case was at Sunderland Polytechnic, where the Jewish Society was banned on the pretext that all Zionists are racists.

From the objectionable to the absurd, Guildford law school banned the Solicitor-General on the pretext that his speaking to lawyers would cause a disturbance.

Some universities have acted and tried to tackle the matter. Warwick university imposed a fine of £30,000 on the students' union for activities against the Secretary of State. Sussex has disciplined its students, and York has taken students to court. After a shaky start and despite a sit-in, Manchester is now disciplining its students. However, those measures are not entirely satisfactory. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North received a letter today informing him that, despite the court action taken by the Vice-Chancellor of York, he is again banned from appearing because of fear of disruption.

What about the milk and water reaction of Bristol, Bradford, Nottingham, Sunderland poly, or the Guildford school of law? Mr. Bensley of that school was quoted in the press as saying that the visits of VIPs and controversial figures damage the college's reputation.

There are other methods of harassment. At Reading, an additional charge was made for security and insurance to allow a meeting of the Secretary of State for Education and Science. The Secretary of State asked the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom to issue guidelines, and last December it did so. The principles that have been adopted are fine. They say:
"The vice-chancellor's committee urges all universities to protect and promote lawful freedom of speech and of assembly and to take effective action against conduct which infringes these vitally important rights and their lawful exercise."

That sounds fine and I fully approve, but the recommendations have too many doors through which the activists can bolt. The vice-chancellors' committee invisages that the threat of disorder should be sufficient for the vice-chancellors to ban meetings. That would be an open invitation to those who adopt no platform policies to threaten disruption as a means of preventing the meeting from taking place. The vice-chancellors see difficulties in policing, getting witnesses to attend and inviting police on to the premises and on the layout of the buildings. They envisage difficulties arising from the delegation of responsibility to the students' union. All that is a matter of priority. If the priority is to maintain freedom of speech, those are difficulties to be overcome not excuses to be paraded.

For that reason, unfortunately, I believe that it is necessary to back up the vice-chancellors' intentions with the force of law, especially as it is possible that their recommendations will be followed by the Committee of Directors of Polytechnics.

My Bill would impose a duty upon university authorities to maintain the right of free speech for all persons lawfully on their premises who wish to exercise that right within the limits of the general law. That duty would apply to the premises of student unions, which avoids any doubt on that matter. There would be a duty on students and members of the universities to assist the university authorities in the discharge of their duty.

Obviously, it would be right and proper for universities to claim that they had taken all reasonable steps in the discharge of that duty, and the Bill provides for that. However, the Bill states that we should take into account elementary things that universities should do to qualify for having taken reasonable steps. Those steps should include a proper disciplinary code, adequate action against offenders, fines on student unions, where appropriate, arrangements properly made with the organisers of meetings and arrangements for the admission of the police, where necessary. Non-discrimination in the use of facilities by persons of different shades of opinion should also be included. The Bill provides that cancellation of or refusal to hold a meeting should not normally be accepted as reasonable exercise of the duty.

The object of the Bill is to bring the standards of the laggards up to those of the best. When students have had a chance to vote on those matters and express a view—as they have done in Swansea, York and Manchester and in the National Union of Students after what happened at Sunderland polytechnic—they have shown great sense in that they wish to expunge that vile attitude from universities. Those who stop free speech have no place in an institution of learning.

The Bill will have the widespread support of all those who have the good interests of universities and institutions of higher education at heart.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Fred Silvester, Mr. Gerald Bowden, Mr. David Madel, Mr. Robert Rhodes James, Mr. Andrew Rowe, Mr. William Shelton, Mr. Robin Squire, Mr. Patrick Thompson, Sir William van Straubenzee and Mrs. Ann Winterton.

Freedom Of Speech (Universities And Institutions Of Higher Education)

Mr. Fred Silvester accordingly presented a Bill to safeguard the right of free speech in universities and institutions of higher education, including student unions; to establish the duties and powers necessary for the enforcement of this right; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 14 March and to be printed. [Bill 80.]