United Kingdom

Freedom of (extremist) speech

When most people hear the word “extremist,” it makes them flinch. The term is associated, of course, with strong words and stronger sentiments, and so it would make sense that universities would not want extremist speakers being given a podium on campus.

However, a new study by Universities UK asserts that university vice-chancellors should reject demands to ban controversial speakers, and instead engage extreme political views on campus.

By engaging and not marginalising the views, there is a chance for discussion that would otherwise be impossible, and, as the report states, “Unless views can be expressed they cannot also be challenged.”

Professor Malcolm Grant, President and Provost of University College London (UCL) headed the report in order to explore how universities can promote freedom of speech on campus while protecting the welfare of staff, students and the wider community.

“Universities are open institutions where academic freedom and freedom of speech are fundamental to their functioning,” said Grant. “Views expressed within universities, whether by staff, students or visitors, may sometimes appear to be extreme or even offensive. However, unless views can be expressed they cannot also be challenged.”

Universities are advised, however, that even freedoms have limits imposed by the law in order to ensure safety and well being of students, staff and the public, and to ensure that “potentially aberrant behaviour is challenged and communicated to the police where appropriate.” 

It is not their duty, though, to impede the exercise of fundamental freedoms, especially freedom of speech through censorship.

The report covered the areas of speaker meetings, protests, student societies, incidents on campus and the boundaries of free speech, and provided suggestions and tips on how to work with the students’ union, provide information about free speech and what is acceptable, and develop a regular dialogue with relevant external organisations like the police and community groups.

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