Freedom of speech in education: the foundation of an effective society

by David Isaac

Published: 05 Jul 2019

David Isaac speaking at the launch event for the Theos report ‘Faith and belief on campus: Division and cohesion'.

Earlier this week, the Pope announced that the nineteenth century English Roman Catholic Cardinal John Henry Newman would be declared a saint. Yet Cardinal Newman was not so revered during his lifetime.

Indeed, after much criticism of his theological writing and teaching, he had to resign from his post at Oxford University in 1845. Why? He had decided to become a Catholic, and you might be surprised to learn that no Catholic, indeed no-one from any faith other than the Church of England, was allowed to study or teach at English universities until 1871.

Yet remarkably, Newman did not let his experience at Oxford make him bitter. He spent the rest of his life fighting anti-Catholic prejudice in British society, pastoring in Birmingham and elsewhere, and helping to found schools and a university in Ireland, which eventually became University College Dublin.

His book, The Idea of the University, is a robust argument that higher education institutions should be places committed to differing views and free enquiry, because he was convinced that ‘religion and knowledge are not opposed to each other… they are indivisibly connected’.

Freedom of expression is one of the key foundations on which our society is built.

Our neighbourhoods are increasingly made up of people from different communities – and with different views and perspectives – living side-by-side.

For society to function as a whole we must ensure our foundations are based on the common values of tolerance, understanding and mutual respect.

To achieve this ambition, in an increasingly diverse world, we must recognise and embrace difference – in the way that we live, in the way we practice our faith or no-faith, and in how we express our ideas and opinions.

How we participate in dialogue and listen to each other is the key to building a coherent society. It permits greater understanding of different views and lifestyles and reduces harmful attitudes and prejudice from becoming entrenched.

We must stop building walls around our own communities that create safe but isolated spaces and instead look beyond our own narrow concerns and interests – to participate as citizens in the society in which we all live. The earlier we can begin this process the better – and this is where education plays a vital role.

Schools, colleges and universities don’t just teach people how to pass exams. They also help people grow as individuals and prepare us to be good citizens.

I’d like to tell you about my own experience when I left rural Wales as a young man to go to university.

It was only at university that, as a young gay man, I met people like me: people who were also gay or people who were supportive of my decision to be open about my sexuality. I’m pleased to say that the community I developed helped me grow as a person and become more confident, and it was because of that confidence that I was able to engage more widely with people – even those who disagreed with me or felt that my decision to live as an openly gay man was contrary to their faith.

I believe that students go to university to explore new ideas, to meet new and different people, to become more independent – not just to pass exams. But they need to find support if they are part of a minority. I believe that once they have that support they can engage more widely with others.

And so, like a society without walls, universities must be a safe place for students and staff to come together to debate and challenge one another and – equally importantly – for all students to practice their religions and beliefs.

Faith and belief groups are, in my view, an asset to universities and must be properly supported. They provide a haven where students can engage with people who hold similar beliefs and are a platform for students to go out and engage with others – even those who hold differing views. 

Having read the excellent report on Faith and Belief published by Theos, I agree with its recommendations that there should be better support for faith and belief student societies from universities and students’ unions.

But it is equally important that faith and belief groups don't just turn inwards. I would encourage more collaboration with faith and other groups and for them to be in dialogue with students’ unions, even if that is not always easy. In my view, this is the key to understanding what else is happening in 21st Century Britain and is how the cause of academic freedom is best served.

And that is why I believe higher education institutions have a responsibility to be bastions of debate and defenders of free expression.

I know that at times this can be a minefield for educators. We are living in an age of hypersensitivity where it is increasingly easier for people to feel offended – or others to be worried about protecting minority groups. 

Social media often makes things worse and it is easier than ever for people to group together to block out what they consider to be opposing ideas. To live and debate within walls – or echo chambers. All of which affects our ability to engage, and ultimately to empathise, with people who hold different views to our own.

My experience is that life has become less nuanced, and if you are for one thing then you are against something else.

I believe that this kind of polarisation leads to debate shutting down.

This, of course, is not to say that balancing rights and obligations isn't complex. There is no hierarchy of rights and establishing the right approach can be challenging. We need to look at each situation on a case-by-case basis.

It is against this background that we have seen the stories reported in the media of speakers being refused a platform at universities because of their controversial views. 

Can I say that I think that the problem has often been overstated – and our research suggests that the incidences of no-platforming are not nearly as common as the media would have us believe. 

What we do know is that the education sector has asked for help and clear guidance on how to navigate this difficult terrain (the Joint Committee on Human Rights also shared this view).

As a result, we are providing some leadership in this area. Working in collaboration with a range of bodies including government and the education sector we have devised a set of principles that will help address some of the issues.

Our abiding concern was to ensure that universities and students know their responsibilities and feel confident to promote respectful and open debate – and to ensure freedom of expression is not unnecessarily restricted just because people don’t like what others have to say. Indeed, this is what the law requires.

As George Orwell said: ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’

In our guidance, we present five core ideas to ensure that freedom of speech in higher education is upheld at every opportunity.

1.     The first is that everyone has the right to free speech within the law.

2.     Next, higher education providers should always work to widen debate and challenge, never to narrow it.

3.     Our third core principle is that decisions about speakers and events should seek to promote and protect the right to freedom of expression.

4.     Fourthly, whilst we acknowledge that peaceful protest is a protected form of expression, protest should not be allowed to shut down debate or infringe the rights of others.

5.     And finally, freedom of expression should not be abused for the purpose of unchallenged hatred or bigotry. Balanced and respectful debate should always be the aim.

The default in our view is that, considering all the legal duties carefully, events should go ahead wherever possible.

With this in mind, the guidance sets out some practical examples of what universities can do to uphold freedom of speech whilst ensuring that debate is respectful.

The guidance also clarifies the limited occasions that freedom of expression can be restricted – for example if the content of a speech amounts to unlawful harassment or involves the promotion of terrorism.

We also give specific examples of managing debate, such as filming an event to deter the use of unlawful speech, or requesting copies of promotional materials in advance of the event. We also suggest developing a clear policy setting out the principles of respectful discourse for speakers.

One of the difficult areas in this debate is in relation to the position of students’ unions, where no-platforming and non-engagement policies have often been the cause of huge controversy.

The National Union of Students has a formal no-platform policy that prevents certain organisations speaking at their events or prevents officers speaking at events attended by these groups. These organisations are known to have racist or fascist views.

It is lawful for the NUS to adopt and enforce this policy for its own activities. But it cannot and should not be used to impose restrictions on other student societies or across campus.

Individual students’ unions can adopt their own policies and this is where we would encourage these students' unions to follow our guidance and proceed on the basis of allowing events to go ahead - liaising closely with the university in question.  You will also know that the university must take reasonably practical steps to ensure that freedom of speech is protected within the law.

Many of the practical recommendations in the Theos report are very helpful and, if implemented, I believe would result in improved dialogue and understanding between faith groups and universities and students’ unions.

While I am on the topic of students' unions, I would like to take the opportunity to say that we believe that promoting freedom of expression within universities should also extend to faith groups affiliated with student unions.

There have been a few incidents, thankfully quite rare, where there have been attempts to prevent Christian unions, pro-life societies or Jewish groups from affiliating with a student union. They have been preventing from hiring rooms in student union buildings and participating in fresher’s fairs because the student union objects to their beliefs or takes a different position on issues such as abortion or Israel-Palestine.

This is not consistent with ensuring freedom of speech on campus, and our guidance makes clear that it should not happen.

It’s also important to acknowledge that there may be circumstances in which restrictions on free speech are legitimate.

Our guidance is very clear on the situations where certain forms of expression become hate crimes that incite violence, hatred or discrimination against other people and groups. Sadly, we have seen a huge increase in the incidence of hate crimes in this country – especially in relation to anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

I know that these can be just as much of a problem in university life as they are outside higher education and it has resulted in huge anxiety (and self-censoring) amongst certain communities. We know that these prejudices also play out on university campuses.

This is something that we are playing out part to address.

As you might be aware, we are coming to the end of our inquiry into racism at universities. It’s a piece of our work that has captured the attention of students and staff.

While the focus is racial harassment, we recognise that race and religion are closely linked; especially in terms of how people experience racial harassment and the way that racial prejudice is sometimes expressed. The good news is that we have received the highest amount of responses ever to any of our calls for evidence. To me this indicates the extent of the concern about the issue.

Finally, we cannot discuss religion or belief without talking about the Prevent Duty.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry into free speech in universities found that students may be self-censoring as a result of the Prevent Duty.

Our guidance gives clear advice on universities’ obligations relating to Prevent, including the type of actions they can take to mitigate the risk of people being drawn into terrorism.

Higher education providers should ensure that the way they comply with the duty does not lead to students or staff feeling uncomfortable in expressing their political or religious views on campus. As the Theos report suggests, universities must ensure that in fulfilling their duties in relation to Prevent they balance these with their duties to uphold freedom of speech.

As you might know, earlier this year, the Court of Appeal found that wording in the guidelines produced by Prevent, designed to tackle radicalisation on campus, went too far in curbing freedom of speech.

The changes to the guidance are likely to be editorial, but reflect the need for nuance and careful consideration in balancing rights and obligations around freedom of speech.

But it’s important to acknowledge that these are not just issues for universities – especially at a time of real uncertainty and change in our country. You may have seen the increasingly ugly exchanges outside Parliament and be aware of the toxic abuse of some people on social media. All of these things sadly fuel the antagonism and growing polarisation of views in society.

Which brings us back to my opening comments: we don’t have to agree with what people say within the law – but we should always ensure that everyone can speak freely – even if their views or beliefs are unpopular.

I fear that to proceed in any other way means that intolerance and divisions will become more even extreme and entrenched. 

And at a time when there appears to be less tolerance and acceptance of people of faith it is more important than ever that all parts of our society can express their views.  

Only by embracing the diversity of all views and traditions can we properly prepare students to be citizens of 21st Century Britain. 

A country that will in my view become even stronger and more vibrant if we acknowledge our complex history and the differences that exist between individual communities – and embrace them by listening to each other and engaging in respectful discussion and dialogue.

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