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Universities: Freedom of Expression

Question for Department for Education

UIN HL6096, tabled on 6 March 2018

To ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of protection of freedom of speech at universities, following the violent disruption at the King's College London Libertarian Society meeting on 5 March.

Answered on

19 March 2018

Hatred, discrimination and violence have no place on our campuses. Universities have a clear responsibility under the Equality Act 2010 to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, harassment and victimisation, and to foster good relations between those who share protected characteristics, such as race or religion, and those who do not.

Free speech is protected in universities by law and plays a crucial role in generating rigorous debate, advancing understanding and allowing students to challenge conventional wisdom and discuss controversial subjects. Under the Education (No 2) Act 1986, universities have a duty to ‘take reasonably practicable steps to ensure freedom of speech for staff, students and visiting speakers,’ and this includes having a free speech code of practice. The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 extends this duty to all providers registered with the Office for Students (OfS).

The OfS will have an important role to play in championing free speech. Under our proposals they would also have a range of levers to intervene where issues arise. A principle relating to freedom of speech is also included in the recently published regulatory framework for OfS, see attached.

This government remains committed to freedom of speech within the law – this does not include hate speech, incitement to violence or terrorism. We expect universities to take appropriate action, including involving law enforcement if necessary, in response to incidents such as those at Kings College on 5 March 2018.