Restrictions on Freedom of Speech is on the rise in universities

Isabel Aruna, Online Politics Editor, reports on the loss of the human right by university students across the country.

Freedom. It is a right that we treasure in this country, particularly freedom of speech, the right to express ourselves without fear of government persecution or censorship; it is not a right available to everyone across the world and in the UK we highly value this right, in fact I think we demand it. ‘Find UK Law’ states, “most people would agree that in an open, democratic society, free speech is essential. The press, the broadcast media and political opponents must have the freedom to criticise those in power. It is one of the ways that people in such a society hold their leaders accountable and express their individuality as free citizens”.

It is important to note though that by law there are certain restrictions that are placed on freedom of speech.  Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which has been incorporated into UK law in the Human Rights Act 1998, depicts that freedom of speech “may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others”.At university as students I think it is key to have freedom of speech, we need to be able to freely voice our concerns and issues with our institutions and in general freely speak about different issues in our society. However, I think that freedom of speech like the law states can and should be restricted.

According to The Times,” free speech is under growing threat at British universities”. Recent reports and research by ‘Spiked Online’ claim that universities are, “enacting extra-legal censorship or expanding legal definitions unnecessarily” beyond the requirements of the law. Spiked Online are the creators of the illustrious “Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR)” which is the first of its kind   initiated in 2015 and collects results annually like the best universities rankings. Also, according to the Guardian, “in research by Spiked, 80% of universities are shown, as a result of their official policies and actions, to have either restricted or actively censored free speech and expression on campus beyond the requirements of the law”.  Furthermore, The Times states that, “student unions or universities banned speakers, pressure groups, types of behaviour, songs and even hand gestures on 55% of campuses last year, up from 41% in 2014, according to a new analysis”.

FSUR uses a “traffic light system to assess and rank each university and their students’ union”. Among the many universities slated a red ranking was some of the most prestigious in the UK: LSE, UCL, Warwick, and Oxford.  This red traffic light ranking means that overall“a students’ union, university or institution is hostile to free speech and free expression. It mandates explicit restrictions on speech, including, but not limited to, bans on specific ideologies, political affiliations, beliefs, books, speakers or words”. FSUR claims that in 2014 Oxford University, “Christ Church college banned a debate on abortion. The students’ union, which has maintained its Red ranking, has banned pro-life groups in the past”. However, not everyone is in agreement with FSUR’s rankings, methods and conclusions. The Guardian reports that Essex University have argued, “it is “absurd” that [they are] given a red ranking “for providing guidance to our community about avoiding homophobic behaviour, in line with the Equality Act 2010. We make no apology for working to ensure all our staff and students are treated with dignity and respect””.

I agree with Amnesty International argument that, “governments have an obligation to prohibit hate speech and incitement. And restrictions can also be justified if they protect specific public interest or the rights and reputations of others…..People imposing the restrictions (whether they are governments, employers or anyone else) must be able to demonstrate the need for them, and they must be proportionate”. It is becoming increasingly clear though that some universities are unnecessarily “curbing” free speech, so what is going to be done about it?