Freedom of speech strengthened by ‘culture of mutual toleration’, says Russell Group

Universities “make no apology for taking swift action” to stop hate speech and discrimination, the Russell Group statement reads

The Russell Group has released a statement about its collective approach to free speech, saying “by fostering a culture of mutual toleration in our universities, we strengthen freedom of speech by ensuring that all voices can be heard”. 

The mission group representing 24 research-intensive, high-tariff universities said its members were committed to the “open and rigorous contestation of ideas” and only limit that principle “in exceptional circumstances… in a manner mindful of the fundamental importance of freedom of speech”.

The statement balances the significance of free speech to universities with the legal and moral requirement to curtail “hate speech, or unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation that undermine the ability of students, researchers and academics to engage fully in university life”. 

“Where that takes place, our universities make no apology for taking swift action to stop it,” the statement adds. 

The statement comes after the government proposed new legislation that will require public-funded HE providers to sign a new covenant to “actively promote free speech” on campuses. The law will institute a new champion for free speech and academic freedom to the board of the Office for Students (OfS), who will monitor universities and students’ unions and have the ability to levy fines for infringements. Student unions (SUs) are, for the first time, included in academic freedom legislation.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson said the legislation was in response to an increasing number of individuals silenced for their views. University Business asked the DfE how many incidences of ‘silencing’ it had recorded – the department has yet to respond. Mr Williamson said he was “deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring”. 

The Russell Group defended its record on freedom of speech, saying that events covering contested issues “go ahead every week at universities across the UK”. Universities “provide a wide range of fora where free and frank intellectual exchanges take place”, the statement adds. 

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, told University Business the job would be “impossible” to do well.

“I worry we’ll see provocateurs try to use the new rules to their advantage. If you’re a far-right troublemaker, you have a right to have your views, but… what is this free speech tsar meant to do – are they meant to protect the rights of provocateurs that are stopping people going about their rightful day to day business?

“I think it’d be a very difficult job. But though there are people out there who could do it, I worry whoever does the job, that it may prove to be an almost impossible job to do well.”

Responding to today’s statement from the Russell Group, Gavin Williamson said:

Free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities must be places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge ideas and form their own world views.

“We are committed to upholding these values, and I welcome these principles from The Russell Group as a positive step in the right direction.

“All universities and colleges should think hard about their own policies, and what they can do to further protect freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus.”

The Russell Group statement on freedom of speech in universities in full:

Academic freedom and freedom of speech anchor the commitment of our universities to the open and rigorous contestation of ideas. They are fundamental to our purpose as academic institutions, helping to drive knowledge and discovery in research and education. Freedom of speech extends to all who wish to seek, receive or impart information and ideas of all kinds, and includes the right to protest peacefully.

Facilitating an environment where all students and staff are able to inquire, study, and discuss is a responsibility our universities take extremely seriously. Russell Group universities work closely with staff, students’ unions and other organisations to defend and maintain freedom of expression on campus. Speaker events addressing diverse views on complex issues go ahead every week at universities across the UK.

In such an environment, the ideas and views of different members of university communities will naturally often come into conflict. Our universities provide a wide range of fora where free and frank intellectual exchanges take place and the diverse views of individuals are tolerated, whilst also assuring the safety of students, staff and members of the public.

The academic freedom of teaching and research staff is protected through clear contractual arrangements, and in legislation. The autonomy this provides helps protect research and ensure curricula are diverse, considering the competing merits of different schools of thought. Across all disciplines, helping students develop the ability to argue a case and use appropriate evidence to challenge opposing views is an important part of the individual and collective educational experience at UK universities.

The right to free speech is not only central to the culture of our institutions, it is protected by law. In limited circumstances it can also be restricted by law. For example, free speech does not usually extend to hate speech, or to unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation that undermine the ability of students, researchers and academics to engage fully in university life. Where that takes place, our universities make no apology for taking swift action to stop it.  

This commitment to upholding the legal protections afforded our university communities is entirely consistent with a wider commitment to the free and open discussion of challenging or controversial ideas. Where, in exceptional circumstances, our universities need to apply restrictions, they do so in a manner mindful of the fundamental importance of freedom of speech. By fostering a culture of mutual toleration in our universities, we strengthen freedom of speech by ensuring that all voices can be heard.

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