Our Sector: Freedom of speech and SUs- what’s really going on?


In recent months students’ unions have been under the spotlight in much of the press over their “censorial” attitude to freedom of speech. Triggered in part by the Spiked! Free Speech rankings and arguably culminating in a spat between Peter Tatchell and NUS, swathes of commenters have argued that controversial voices on campus are being silenced in the name of “safe spaces”.

On the 17th March Tatchell intends to hold a demonstration outside of the headquarters of NUS about the issues. He says:

“We are deeply concerned by the increasing attempts by the National Union of Students (NUS) and its affiliated Student Unions to silence dissenters – including feminists, apostates, LGBTI rights campaigners, anti-racists, anti-fascists and anti-Islamists – through its use of No-Platform and Safe Space policies.

“We stand against all prejudice and discrimination. We agree that free speech does not mean giving bigots a free pass. A defence of free speech includes the right and moral imperative to challenge, oppose and protest bigoted views.

“Educational institutions must be a place for the exchange and criticism of all ideas – even those deemed unpalatable by some – providing they don’t incite violence against peoples or communities. Bigoted ideas are most effectively defeated by open debate, backed up by ethics, reason and evidence.

“The student body is not homogeneous; there will be differences of opinion among students. The NUS’s restrictive policies infringe upon the right of students to hear and challenge dissenting and opposing views.

“We, therefore, call on the NUS to revise its No-Platform and Safe Space policies to facilitate freedom of expression and thought, rather than restrict it.”


So what is the truth? In early March we surveyed 50 major UK Students’ Unions on their freedom of speech regime, asking two simple questions:

  • Have you banned any external speakers in the past twelve months?
  • Do you have a policy on external speakers that manages risk?

The results were illuminating.

None of the 50 had banned a speaker in the past 12 months

In some cases events had been postponed or initial bookings paused whilst checks were carried out, but none of the 50 students’ unions had banned a speaker

All of the 50 had a policy that managed the risks associated with external speakers

In the vast majority of these cases the students’ unions have policies that are designed to facilitate and allow controversial debate by putting in place measures to mitigate risk when controversy ensues. These include:

  • Requiring that an event promoting a particular view includes an opportunity to debate or challenge that view
  • Requiring that the event be stewarded or subject to security on the door
  • Requiring that the event be filmed

In the majority of cases these policies are based on model guidelines issued by NUS whose introductory preamble states “open debate, the exchange of opinions and the development of students’ ideas and understanding are central to the culture of universities in promoting freedom of speech and ensuring academic freedom”.

Processes to manage risk at any event held by a students’ union are required under charity law.

The reality is therefore clear- that whilst repeated press stories describe a highly censorious culture developing on campus, in fact the vast majority of UK campuses have permissive freedom of speech cultures, where the majority of controversy is managed through sensible debate and security measures rather than “banning” and “No Platforming”.

Recent press articles therefore appear to be taking a relatively disparate set of incidents- Sombreros at UEA, students wishing to protest about a statue in Oxford, an NUS officer withdrawing from an event with Peter Tatchell, etc and making them into something they are not. Students Unions (like universities, restaurants, theme parks and grandparents) have always (and will always) seek to set standards of behaviour that go beyond the law in pursuit of the wider interests of users, and will want to protest about things or people they find unpleasant. But there is almost no evidence that the organised expression of students are somehow “ban happy” and constantly “shutting down” debate. On the contrary- their thirst for debate appears alive and well.

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