Universities have been warned, by MPs and peers, that they cannot become ‘safe spaces’ as they have a responsibility to “protect the right to free speech, in line with their statutory duty”.
The joint committee on human rights (JCHR), chaired by former Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Harriet Harman, has collated evidence from university students and authorities over the past weeks and found that while there is not widespread censorship of debate at universities, there are nevertheless ways in which free speech has been actively limited.
The JCHR will consequently aid universities in seeking to combat the prohibition, by students, of certain speakers who espouse minority views, which most frequently concern issues regarding LGBT+, women’s rights (including abortion), and Islamophobia.
Safe spaces are environments aimed at allowing students to freely express themselves while protecting them from harassment or discrimination, but the JCHR has adjudged that these spaces are now being used as a means through which minority views, or views widely seen as contentious, are restricted.
Such restrictions not only represent a violation on an individual’s right to free speech, but also impinge on the “open and uncensored debate” that the committee believes universities should promote.
This warning comes after speakers at universities across the nation have been disrupted by individuals and groups who do not believe that they should be given a platform to speak.
This month, a YouTuber called Sargon of Akkad, speaking at King’s College London, was confronted by activists who used smoke bombs, broke windows, and assaulted security staff during his speech.
Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was also confronted by angry protestors about his views opposing both abortion and gay marriage at a speech at the University of West England. He spoke out after the event, stating that while those who opposed him were perfectly “entitled to protest”, he had been disappointed that they would not discuss and debate any of the views which they challenged.
Contentious speakers have been disrupted at Oxford University as well. Most recently, American Conservative commentator Ann Coulter’s address to the Union was interrupted by a small group of student protestors who had to be forcibly removed.
The JCHR established in its report that “minority views should not be barred from student union premises”. While the committee noted that students did of course have a right to protest, it went on to state that events that featured individuals or groups with unpopular, albeit legal, views should not be stopped.
Chris Hale, Director of Policy and Universities UK, corroborated this view, and in a statement of his own commented on how “Universities are absolutely committed to promoting and securing free speech and will not allow legitimate speech to be stifled”.
Those Oxford students present at an Oxford Union debate last year were of a similar opinion, with an overwhelming majority (267-33) voting that while there should certainly be safe spaces on campus, the whole university should not itself become a safe space as this would represent a barrier to free speech.