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‘Safe spaces’ can be justified. But free speech must be protected

‘Safe spaces’ can be justified. But free speech must be protected
4 min read

Universities must be places where students can debate ideas openly, even if they are unpopular, controversial or provocative, writes Harriet Harman

Just about everyone agrees that freedom of speech is vital. We all agree, too, that there have to be limits laid down by law. But what is not so straightforward is how we ensure that everyone has free speech and how we stop free speech by some, limiting that freedom for others.

How do we defend free speech while at the same time protecting those whose freedoms are inhibited by discrimination, homophobia, misogyny and racism? All this is particularly important on university campuses, where both academics and students must have freedom of speech, thought and belief. 

Last year, Jo Johnson, as minister responsible for Higher Education announced that freedom of speech at universities was being repressed so the Joint Committee on Human Rights undertook an inquiry into it. The committee, which is half Lords and half Commons, was well equipped to look at this. Our members include; leading anti-racism campaigner Baroness Doreen Lawrence, legal expertise in the shape of judge Lord Harry Woolf and solicitor Fiona Bruce MP, MP for the UK’s biggest Islamic community Karen Buck and new Tory bright spark Alex Burghart. We’ve kept an eye on the differences between universities in England and elsewhere in the UK by virtue of Joanna Cherry QC MP and veteran of Northern Ireland free speech rows, David Trimble.

We heard from students and vice-chancellors. We brought together trans rights campaigners and Peter Tatchell, the Federation of Islamic Student Societies (FOSIS) and the Union of Jewish Students.  We asked the Office for Students (OFS), the Equality and Human Rights Commission and the Charity Commission what they were doing about it. 

We went into the inquiry open-minded but what was clear from the evidence is that though there is much debate there are also inhibitions on freedom of speech. Masked protesters bursting in to meetings intimidating students, determined to close down debate is totally beyond the pale. The right to demonstrate does not include threatening others. 

That “trend” must be nipped in the bud by the police and by university authorities’ disciplinary action (where they are students). “Safe space” policies intended to ensure that minority or vulnerable groups, such as people of faith or victims of sexual violence, are perfectly justifiable. But that doesn’t justify the whole campus being designated a “safe space”. Universities must be places where students can debate ideas openly, even if they are unpopular, controversial or provocative.

We found that the Charities Commission inhibits free speech by overly restrictive guidance and risk aversion. We found that though it is the most fundamental duty of government to keep us safe from terrorism, the Prevent Duty has a chilling effect, particularly on Muslim students, on what is perfectly lawful free speech.

We found that though university administrators are committed to the principle of free speech, they make students seek approval to hold meetings, vet speakers and insist on complex application procedures. Student organisations are pulled in different ways and bombarded by conflicting guidance from the OFS, university authorities, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Charity Commission and the Prevent Duty. 

The new minister responsible for Higher Education, Sam Gyimah, has called them all together to sort out a clear and coherent approach to free speech. And, in the meantime, to help students and universities with the forest of overlapping guidance, we have, with the great expertise of the JCHR legal team, issued clear and simple guidance for students and universities.

The right to free speech is fundamental. Unless it is unlawful, free speech should be allowed. Free speech within the law should mean just that. 


Harriet Harman is Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham and chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Her Westminster Hall debate is on Thursday 17 May

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