The incorrect use of ‘no platforming’ and ‘safe space’ policies, regulatory complexity and ‘unnecessary bureaucracy’ are limiting free speech at universities, a group of MPs and Lords has warned.

“University is an environment where a range of opinions should be heard and explored. Minority views should not be barred from student union premises,” the report reads. Photo: UK Parliament/Flickr.

The Joint Committee of Human Rights (JCHR), which published a report earlier today, said that there is no ‘wholesale censorship of debate in universities’, but an interference with free speech rights on campus is ‘unacceptable’ and could have a ‘chilling effect on the exercise of freedom of speech more widely’.

“Universities must be places where open and uncensored debate (within the law) can take place so students can think for themselves and develop their own opinions on ideas which may be unpopular, controversial or provocative.

“University is an environment where a range of opinions should be heard and explored. Minority views should not be barred from student union premises,” the report reads.

The publication comes after Lincoln SU received its third ‘red’ rating for freedom of speech in a row by the online magazine spiked, which means an institution ‘has banned and actively censored ideas on campus’.

The Union was also awarded with a ‘Ban of the Year’ award, following its decision to temporarily ban the Conservative Society’s social media accounts after the group criticised its free speech record.

In response to the ranking, Lincoln SU tweeted: “We are ranked Red again for following our regulatory body’s (Charity Commission) guidelines and having a policy for not allowing bullying and harassment.”

As a charity, the Students’ Union follows guidelines set by the organisation, but the JCHR argues that the Charity Commission’s approach to regulating free speech at SUs is ‘problematic’.

“The Commission’s guidance is not easy to use, is in places unduly restrictive, could deter speech which is not unlawful and does not take adequate account of the importance of debate in a university setting,” the report says.

The publication also issued a guide for organising events on campus, which says that students shouldn’t be deterred from doing so ‘due to over-bureaucratic procedures’.

“Where free speech is inhibited, there should be recourse available to challenge that inhibition,” it says.

In a statement, chairwoman Harriet Harman MP said evidence submitted to the committee displayed ‘a problem of free speech in universities’.

“While media reporting has focussed on students inhibiting free speech – and in our report we urge universities to take action to prevent that – free speech is also inhibited by university bureaucracy and restrictive guidance from the Charity Commission.

“We want students themselves to know their rights to free speech and that’s why we’ve issued a guide for students today,” she said.

The committee has also recommended an independent review of the Prevent strategy – which requires institutions to prevent young people from being drawn into terrorism – and has called for the Charity Commission to review its guidance.

Update: Universities UK have since responded to the report’s findings, saying in a statement that universities are ‘absolutely committed to promoting and securing free speech’ and will not allow the stifling of ‘legitimate speech’.

Chris Hale, Director of Policy, said: “There is already a legal duty on the higher education sector to secure free speech within the law and universities have developed policies in this area.

“As the report states, there is little hard evidence of a systematic problem of free speech in universities. But, despite the thousands of events that go ahead across the sector without incident, a small number of flash-points and challenges do arise from time to time.

“It is important that universities are well equipped to secure free speech within the law, while balancing this with other responsibilities such as the safety of students and staff.

“We will look at the advice of the committee in this area and how it can complement the already extensive experience of managing such events and policies universities have in place.​

“Universities must continue to be places where difficult topics are discussed and where people, however controversial their views, should be allowed to speak within the law, and their views challenged openly.”​

Update: The Charity Commission, which regulates students’ unions, has also responded to the JCHR’s report and said they ‘welcome the recognition’ it gives to the commission’s regulatory role.

They said: “We recognise the important role that students’ unions play in promoting or engaging in analysis, debates or discussions on controversial or sensitive issues. Our existing guidance is clear that charities can legitimately challenge traditional boundaries, encourage the free exchange of views and host speakers with a range of views.

“What we expect of students’ union trustees – as is expected of all charity trustees in accordance with charity law – is that when carrying out activities, they consider and take reasonable steps to assess and manage any associated undue risks to their charity and people who come into contact with it.

“The Committee’s report gives a number of examples where students’ unions have facilitated very successful speaking events.

They then went on to add that such regulatory framework ‘can be difficult for students’ unions to navigate’.

“Going forward we will continue to work closely with the Office for Students, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and other key stakeholders including the Department of Education, the National Union of Students and Universities UK to ensure that each of our respective regulatory roles and approaches are clearer,” they said.

The Commission has also announced that it will review its guidance titled Protecting your charity from harm, as well as it internal guidance on students’ unions.

Update: The National Union of Students (NUS) has said the JCHR’s inquiry has ‘uncovered what most of us knew all along’ in that ‘there is no crisis of student censorship on campuses’ and that ‘it really is much ado about nothing’.

A spokesperson said: “The committee rightly notes that ‘The press accounts of widespread suppression of free speech are clearly out of kilter with reality.’

“Conversely, the report did find evidence of a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech at universities after all, but it isn’t from safe spaces, No Platform policies or Mexican hats. It is the consequences of the government’s Prevent duty that has inhibited free expression.

“If the government really is concerned with ensuring free speech on campuses, then it needs to look itself in the mirror and see the impact of its own destructive policies.”