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Defending free speech in universities

Since 2008, when it was founded, we have been working with our student section, Humanist Students, and its affiliated University societies to defend freedom of speech on university campuses. A series of incidents involving member societies being unreasonably censored by their students’ unions or universities have occurred.

In each case we have worked carefully with Humanist Students and individual societies, often providing support from lawyers, to ensure that free speech has been upheld.

In 2018, we gave oral and written evidence to the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) in which we advocated guidance be produced on the matter. The JCHR then did just that. This was followed by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) also producing guidance in 2019, although we have some concerns that that guidance may in fact stifle free speech.

In depth

Recent years have seen a series of incidents where universities or students’ unions have attempted to restrict the free speech of member societies of Humanist Students, the student section of Humanists UK. By generating publicity around these cases and offering legal support to the students affected, we have invariably prompted a reversal of the restriction concerned. This reflects the strong legal protections of freedom of speech at universities. Examples of these incidents between 2012 and 2016- can be found in our submission to the Joint Select Committee on Human Rights’ inquiry into free speech on campus. They involve everything from a human rights activist’s talk being cancelled because the speaker was an ex-Muslim, to students being expelled from their own freshers’ fair for wearing a T-shirt that satirised religion.

In 2019, the Equality and Human Rights Commission produced guidance on this subject. However, we are concerned that some aspects of the guidance in fact stifle free speech. The guidance initially included an example that said that whenever an atheist society holds an event on the existence of God, it must ‘ensure a range of views were being presented, and provid[e] additional security to ensure that protesters could be removed if they refused to leave or stop their protest after having a reasonable opportunity to express their views. We secured an amendment to the first part of this sentence, to instead see it suggested that the university ‘explor[es] with the society whether an event where a range of views would be expressed was a viable alternative’. But this and the unchanged security requirement are still too burdensome. Events focusing on the existence of god have not generally proved to be controversial in the past. Other requirements the guidance suggests also seem unreasonable – for instance, it is suggested that the university could require ‘an independent chair’, or require that all discourse is ‘respectful’, which could amount to a de facto blasphemy ban. Imagine if the university demanded that faith-based societies take all of these steps every time they chose to hold an act of worship on campus. That would be wrong, and this would too.

Click here to view examples of incidents in universities

For example, in January 2012 UCL Union requested UCL Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society remove a cartoon from the ‘Jesus and Mo’ webcomic from its Facebook group. But after protests from us and Humanist Students, the request was withdrawn. Later that same week, a talk at Queen Mary University hosted by its Atheism, Secularism and Humanism Society was abandoned due to death threats made at the talk itself.

The following week LSESU Atheist, Secularist and Humanist Society was also instructed by its Students’ Union to remove Jesus and Mo cartoons from its Facebook page. When the society refused, it was asked to remove ‘Union’ from its name. This led to ongoing discussions with Humanists UK, Humanist Students, and lawyers which ultimately resulted in the University overruling the SU on both counts.

In September 2012 Reading University Atheist, Humanist, and Secularist Society were thrown out of their University’s freshers’ fair for putting a post-it note on a pineapple with the label ‘Mohammed’. In October 2013 LSESU ASH faced a similar incident as members were threatened with removal over wearing Jesus and Mo t-shirts at their freshers’ fair. LSE subsequently apologised after discussions involving Humanist Students, Humanists UK, and lawyers sourced by Humanists UK .

In February 2014 London South Bank University’s Union banned a poster produced by the Atheist Society depicting the flying spaghetti monster , deeming it to be offensive. After Humanists UK generated publicity for the case the decision was reversed.

In September 2015, Warwick University, student union banned Warwick Atheists, Secularists, and Humanists from hosting the ex-Muslim human rights activist Maryam Namazie from speaking. However, once again, after protests from Humanists UK and Humanist Students, the decision was quickly reversed.

What we’re doing

  • In 2018, we secured comprehensive new guidance on protecting free speech at universities from parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights after we called for this guidance to be created in written evidence to the Committee’s inquiry, and our Chief Executive, Andrew Copson, called for the same when he appeared as a witness and gave oral evidence. We were the only group to call for guidance to be produced.
  • In 2019, this was followed up by longer guidance by the Equality and Human Rights Commission – something that the JCHR had called for. However, we are concerned that some aspects of the guidance in fact stifle free speech – as outlined above. We secured a post-publication amendment to the guidance to improve it on this front, but it is still far from good enough.
  • We have worked reactively to deal with all individual cases that have arisen, supporting Humanist Students and our affiliated student societies, and in almost all incidents have eventually achieved a resolution in the society’s favour. We will continue to do so if and when similar incidents arise.

Get involved

You can support Humanists UK by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to Humanists UK .

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