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Universities: Freedom of Speech

Volume 769: debated on Monday 22 February 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure freedom of lawful speech at universities, in the light of recent disruptions to speeches.

My Lords, the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech at universities are enshrined in statute. Universities have a clear and unambiguous duty to ensure that legal and lawful views can be heard but, equally, can be robustly challenged and debated. We will continue to support fully those universities which show clear and strong leadership in doing this.

Since your Lordships debated this issue last November, incidents of intolerance and violence have continued on our campuses. For example, the silencing of a female Muslim reformer at Goldsmiths; smashed glass, fire alarms set off and the police called at King’s College London to stop an Israeli peace activist from speaking; Peter Tatchell at Canterbury and other examples. Will the Minister speak to the vice-chancellors at Universities UK to ensure that the law on freedom of speech is upheld and to ask whether the international reputation of our universities is being damaged? To what does she attribute the stifling of intellectual freedom in our universities now?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. There is clear guidance to universities about their responsibilities to ensure free and open debate on campus and we will give full support to university leaderships to ensure that legitimate and open debate within the law can take place. It is concerning that we have seen a number of incidents, as the noble Baroness said. Part of the beauty of going to university is the ability to debate, to have your views challenged and to challenge others. We must continue to support all universities in making sure that all students continue to have that opportunity.

My Lords, do the Government agree that criticism and debate about our religions should be part of freedom of speech at our universities, and indeed elsewhere, but that the lawful line is crossed when adherents to those religions are insulted for their beliefs? Is it not that that becomes incitement?

Universities are uniquely placed to provide intellectual and robust challenge to narratives and they must continue to do this. Of course, students and academics have the right to protest peacefully but this cannot lead to intimidation, harassment or the silencing of those they disagree with. That must be stopped.

My Lords, if a proposed speech is known to be unlawful I would understand any appropriate restrictions, but would not succumbing to mob rule to deny freedom of expression be wholly contrary to the ethos and purpose of a university? I speak as a former chancellor of a university.

I entirely agree with the sentiments of the noble and learned Lord. Unfortunately, it has seemed at times that student unions have taken a somewhat inconsistent approach to freedom of speech—actively inviting speakers who promote intolerance but banning and silencing others. As I have said, the Government are supporting university leaderships to make sure that we preserve freedom of speech. It is hugely important and allows students the opportunity to challenge and debate ideas, which is part of the whole purpose of going to university.

My Lords, now is not the time for confessions but I would observe that as an undergraduate, I saw things in very black and white terms. I do not now, despite what might be suggested by my attire. I would have loved to have been rebuked by Parliament as an undergraduate. Does the Minister agree that in intervening in situations such as these, we run the risk of being counterproductive?

Universities are autonomous bodies. As I have already said, students and academics have the right to protest peacefully, and we cannot quash freedom of speech. That is why, as I said, we will be supporting universities and making sure that legitimate, lawful debate can take place, that people have their views heard and that views that people may find offensive are robustly challenged.

What dialogue have the Government had with universities to support freedom of speech, while implementing the guidance that university events should be cancelled unless the authorities are entirely convinced that the risk that views could draw people into terrorism can be fully mitigated?

We have ongoing discussions with universities. All universities submitted the first self-assessment form following the introduction of the Prevent statutory duty in January, and this will be followed in the spring by detailed assessments of their policies and procedures.

My Lords, debate should always be conducted in courteous terms but does the Minister agree that words such as “antisemitism” and “Islamophobia” and those relating to any other type of religious phobia should not be used as shields to stifle legitimate debate?

As I said, we absolutely want to support students and universities in ensuring that legitimate, lawful debate and the challenging of ideas happens in our universities. That is a tenet of our higher education system that we are proud of and want to continue. This Government will carry on supporting universities and students who want to continue to participate in such debate.

In order for me to assist the House, the Member seeking to ask a question has to try to get in. However, I think that the House wants to hear from the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill.

Does the Minister have any views about the most effective means by which university vice-chancellors and councils can alter the climate in which some people confuse the passion of their own disagreement with a licence to silence?

There is a good, strong relationship between vice-chancellors and students in many universities. Indeed, as Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of Oxford University, has said, students must learn to engage with ideas that they find objectionable and be more willing to debate with opponents to try to change their minds. Statements like that from vice-chancellors, encouraging students and making clear the need to debate and argue about ideas, are very positive.