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HEi-think: Universities face tough decisions over freedom of speech

As more universities are faced with situations where they must weigh up defending academic freedom against security concerns, Geoffrey Alderman argues they should not let other factors such as institutional reputation cloud their judgement.


April, which T.S. Eliot taught us was the cruellest month, has been particularly unkind to those of us who value academic freedom in the UK.

At the beginning of the month the University of Southampton confirmed that it had cancelled a conference (at which I was to have delivered a paper) on the theme “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism.” Towards the end of the month Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) announced that it was minded to suppress a conference (“Understanding Charlie: New perspectives on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo”) planned to explore the fallout from the murderous gun attack by Islamists on the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Happily, the QUB decision has now been reversed. But not, apparently, that involving Southampton.  “The only issues under consideration (Southampton’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Don Nutbeam, told the conference organisers by letter on 1 April) were how to balance the University's duty to uphold freedom of speech within the law with its duty to ensure the safety of staff and students of the University on University premises and these are the only considerations that have weighed in the decision making process.” This rationale was mirrored in an initial statement (cancelling the conference) issued by Professor Patrick Johnston, QUB’s Vice-Chancellor, who cited security risks but also a concern for the “reputation” of the institution. Reputation was apparently not of concern to the university authorities at Southampton, but security considerations certainly were – or at least were alleged to be.

I wonder.

By law (section 43 of the Education (No.2) Act, 1986) , British universities are under an obligation to ensure “that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.” The phrase “within the law” is important: it means – for instance – that universities are not obliged to protect the freedom of anyone on campus  to incite violence, or foment racial hatred. It also encompasses speech that is defamatory.  But section 43 goes on to say that a university is under a duty “to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the use of any premises of the establishment is not denied to any individual or body of persons on any ground connected with (a) the beliefs or views of that individual or of any member of that body; or (b) the policy or objectives of that body.”

This means – and can only mean – that the articulation of controversial or even offensive views, the expression of which is nonetheless within the law of the land, cannot by itself constitute grounds for banning a speaker. That is as it should be.

The job of an academic is to challenge received wisdom. Many vested interests are not comfortable with this freedom. That was why, when the Thatcher government abolished tenure in 1988, and on the initiative of the late Roy Jenkins in the House of Lords, the legislation (the Education Reform Act, section 202)  stipulated that academic staff in the affected institutions (the “old” universities) were nonetheless guaranteed the right to enjoy “freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions.”

Of course universities have a duty of care to all who work in or visit their institutions. In the Southampton case, a number of Anglo-Jewish groups had lobbied and even visited the Vice-Chancellor to express their concerns that the conference lacked balance and was intended to demonise Israel, the Jewish state. One group (Sussex Friends of Israel) certainly intended to hold a peaceful demonstration against the conference (as was its right), and reports circulated that pro-Palestinian groups intended to mount a counter-demonstration. There were rumours (apparently confirmed by the Hampshire Constabulary) that the English Defence League had decided to put in an appearance. But there was never any concern on the part of the police that these protests could not be contained (and indeed facilitated) in a perfectly peaceful, lawful manner.

In the case of QUB the alleged security risks seem to have been similarly exaggerated; I am forced to agree with one commentator (writing on the Belfast Telegraph website) who pointed out that unless it was intended to actually display images of the prophet Mohammed, there were no security risks. But in also referring in his statement to reputational concerns Professor Johnston has I think been a good franker than his opposite number at Southampton. 

In the current environment universities have some difficult choices to make – made more difficult still by the new obligations placed upon them by the Counter-Terrorism Act passed just before the dissolution of Parliament. It is reassuring to know that the QUB conference will now go ahead. But at Southampton it seems to me that a flawed decision has been reached, and that in the process a very ominous precedent has been set.


Geoffrey Alderman is Michael Gross Professor of Politics and Contemporary History at the University of Buckingham and Visiting Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies


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