Durham University: Freedom of Expression

Department for Education written question – answered on 24th February 2021.

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Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

To ask the Secretary of State for Education, pursuant to the Answer of 29 January 2020 to Question 5319 on freedom of speech at Sheffield University, what steps he plans to take to block reported proposals by Durham University Student Union to (a) vet in advance external speakers invited to address student societies, (b) require such speakers to submit their speeches to the Union in advance and (c) cancel the invitations to such speakers or require that additional speakers should also be invited; what the legal basis is for student unions to exercise such powers against speakers whom they judge to be controversial; what recent assessment he has made of whether universities are meeting their obligations to (i) protect freedom of speech and (ii) exercise any necessary restrictions on speaker invitations by student societies which pose an identifiable threat to students on campus; and what assessment he has made of whether those obligations require review.

Photo of Michelle Donelan Michelle Donelan Minister of State (Education)

This government has been clear in its commitment to strengthen academic freedom and ensure that our universities are places where free speech can thrive. That is why tougher legal measures have been announced by my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Education, on 16 February, to stamp out unlawful ‘silencing’ on campuses.

The Education Act 1986 imposes a legal duty on those involved in the government of universities to secure lawful free speech. If it has been accurately reported in the press, the decision by Durham University is gravely disappointing and not in line with our high expectations for universities in this area. To give a student union this power over external speakers is wholly inappropriate: no university should ever grant a student union any authority or role in vetting, limiting or otherwise overseeing which external speakers may be invited to speak on campus, or under what circumstances they may do so.

Although it is true that when considering external speakers, higher education providers should, under the Prevent duty, consider the risks that the event may pose in drawing students into terrorism, this must be balanced against their duty to secure freedom of speech; it is only rarely that speakers will form into this category, and applying intrusive procedures on a blanket basis, such as asking all speakers to submit their speeches in advance, is unnecessary and inappropriate. In the vast majority of cases these risks can be mitigated without shutting down speech. In any case, to outsource such decisions to a Student Union, giving them de facto control of who can speak on campus, is completely unacceptable.

At my request, officials have asked the Office for Students, the independent regulator, to investigate this matter and have also contacted the Vice Chancellor of the university to express my concerns.

The new measures set out in the February 2021 policy paper are a part of this government’s commitment to strengthen free speech and academic freedom at universities in England.

The policy paper can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/higher-education-free-speech-and-academic-freedom.

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