Hosting speakers and debates at UK universities
“No platforming” stories at UK universities have become a familiar feature of the news. For example, back in 2016, Cardiff University attempted to ‘no platform’ Germaine Greer on account of her views on transgender people. More recently Bristol University’s students’ union has backed proposals to ban any “Terf” (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists) speakers.
This perceived growth in levels of intolerance on university campuses across the UK led to a government inquiry on freedom of speech in universities. The inquiry was led by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (the Committee) and in March last year they published the results of their inquiry in the form of a report.
One of the key findings of the inquiry was that one of the factors currently limiting free
speech was the “unduly complicated and cautious guidance from the Charity Commission”. The guidance being referred to is called Protecting Charities from Harm (Chapter 5) (the Guidance) and in their evidence to the inquiry, the Charity Commission (the Commission) committed to updating the Guidance to ensure it supports general guidance on free speech.
So what changes has the Commission made to the Guidance and what practical steps can universities, students’ unions and other higher education institutions take to manage the risks associated with hosting speakers and debates?
In its report, the Committee said the Commission’s current approach “does not adequately reflect the important role student unions play in educating students through activism and debate.”
In response, the updated Guidance highlights the importance of freedom of speech to charities with purposes to advance education. In the context of charity law, education has a wide meaning and is not limited to education in a classroom environment.
The Guidance now says:
“It is important to recognise that, whilst ensuring its beneficiaries and people are protected, educational charities can provide safe environments where emotive or sensitive topics can be discussed and debated in furtherance of their educational purposes.” (para 12.2)
The Committee also said the “generic guidance” does not place “due weight on the fact that inhibiting lawful free speech can do as much damage to a student union’s reputation as hosting a controversial speaker” and in response, the updated Guidance now highlights the reputational risks of inhibiting lawful free speech which may impact on the independence and credibility of a charity.
Practical steps to manage the risk
The updated Guidance has shifted the balance somewhat in favour of hosting controversial events rather than “no platforming” speakers. That being said this change in emphasis is not a green light to universities and students’ unions to welcome all comers without carrying out a full risk assessment which should aim to cover the matters listed below:
- Due diligence on the speaker
Trustees should begin by finding out everything they can about the speaker and any organisations he/she is affiliated to.
This should include a check that any organisation the speaker is affiliated to is not registered on the Home Office list of extremist groups or organisations banned under UK law or the OFSI list of designated persons and entities.
If there is any doubt about the type of speech the speaker will be delivering, the trustee should ask to see a copy of the speech in advance.
- Consider the risks and benefits of hosting this particular speaker
Once the trustees have carried out the necessary due diligence on the speaker and have a better idea of the likely content of the speech/debate, they should then consider:
- Whether the event will be in keeping with the charity’s purposes (bearing in mind the wider meaning of ‘advance education’ mentioned above) and comply with the public benefit requirement.
- In the context of the charity’s purposes, is this a good use of the charity’s assets/funds?
- Will the event be legal? It should not, for example, glorify or promote terrorism, incite violence or hatred on the grounds of race religion or sexual orientation. Universities also need to take into account their duty to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism under the PREVENT strategy.
- Does the event breach legal/good practice requirements on political activity and campaigning?
- During the event and afterwards
Assuming the decision is taken to host the speaker in question, the trustees should ensure they have in place a means whereby the university or students’ union is able to intervene should inappropriate comments be made by the speaker or the audience during the course of the event. They should also facilitate a right of reply where appropriate and have clear procedures in place for dealing with any incident or complaint about the event.
The government has made it clear a more robust approach is required when it comes to hosting speakers at universities. However, this is not to say trustees of universities or students’ unions can take their eye off the ball and deciding whether or not to host a speaker still requires careful consideration by all concerned.
Note: This blog post is aimed at universities, students’ unions and higher education institutions however the Charity Commission guidance referred to applies to all charities.