Author: Xavier Baker
This post (edited for publication) is contributed to our blog as part of a series of work produced by students for assessment within the module ‘Public International Law’. We offer this module in the second year of Bristol Law School’s LLB programme. It is led by Associate Professor Dr Noelle Quenivet. Learning and teaching on the module includes the use of online portfolios within a partly student led curriculum. The posts in this series show the outstanding research and analytical abilities of students on our programmes. Views expressed in this blog post are those of the author only who consents to the publication.
In recent years, freedom of expression on university campuses has been a hot topic. Political figures, prominent journalists and spirited students have waged into the heated discussion, fanning the flames of the debate and polarising opinion.
On the surface, UWE appears to be compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), defining the extent of free speech in the Freedom of Speech Policy. However, I will be arguing that there are numerous flaws within university policies and practices that hinder their ability to fulfil key societal roles.
‘Freedom of expression is a fundamental British value…’ (see video) and a qualified right found in Article 10 of the ECHR. This includes the freedom to hold opinions and receive and impart information; each element is crucial to the functioning of higher education facilities.
However, I believe that in the modern day universities have lost sight of their role in society. They should be institutions that secure free speech, expand public knowledge, stimulate ideas and develop global leaders for the future. This is being compromised by limitations on free speech.
In my view, UWE’s policy raises several concerns, thus reducing the extent to which the university complies with Article 10 of the ECHR. The most controversial section of the policy is paragraph 6 (2) which states that reasons for refusing access to premises ‘…include, but are not limited to…’ the list within paragraph 6, and at the discretion of senior members of staff (paragraph 10). This suggests that, although unlikely, UWE has the potential to not allow any events, regardless of the potential offence caused. Despite Article 10 (2) permitting restrictions to freedom of expression in a democratic society that relate to ‘public safety’ and ‘prevent disorder or crime’, I feel that UWE’s document lacks clarity. Consequently, the extent of compliance is muffled by the level of ambiguity. Moreover, the Court’s jurisprudence (see eg Özgür Gündem v Turkey, 16 March 2000, paragraph 43) displays the vital importance of free expression for the well-functioning of democratic societies.
Looking at paragraph 6 of the UWE Free Speech Policy in more depth uncovers further areas of controversy. For example, paragraph 6 (2) iii explains that UWE refuses access to premises where events are ‘…likely to give rise to an environment in which people will experience, or could reasonably fear…’ abuse, violence and/or intimidation. The case of Ceylan v Turkey (8 July 1999, paragraph 34) supports the argument that UWE’s policy complies with the Court’s interpretation because ‘a wider margin of appreciation’ is said to be given to States if expressions incite violence. However, the Court has continually reiterated that Article 10 protects expressions ‘…that offend, shock or disturb.’ (Handyside v UK, 7 December 1976, paragraph 49). Students Unions banning pop song Blurred Lines throughout 2013 epitomizes the result of inconsistencies in the interpretation of Article 10 by the Court, and the extent to which receiving and imparting information in universities has been restricted (see here). Nevertheless, UWE is only compliant with the Court’s interpretations of Article 10 where access to facilities for events is denied due to genuine risks to public safety and possibilities of disorder or crime.
As a consequence of questionable policies and practices, many students claim a ‘right’ not to be offended. From a legal perspective this strongly conflicts with securing freedom of expression, an opinion supported by Baroness O’Neill. As a panellist at Theos Annual Lecture in 2015, O’Neill explained that there cannot be a human right ‘not to be offended’ because ‘offence’ is subjective (see here). Echoing O’Neill’s opinion, I oppose the Safe Spaces and No Platform policies that UWE is subject to as a member of the NUS, as explained by current NUS president in this video.
I feel that the Safe Spaces policy is an example of the NUS crumbling under government pressure to protect Britain against the rising threat of extremism and terrorism. This has unfortunately occurred at the expense of freedom of expression. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 (Section 31) adds further legal responsibilities to an extensive list of statutes that influence university policies (see diagram below). The 2015 Act encourages universities to interact with the Prevent Strategy, referenced by paragraph 2 of UWE’s policy. However, government reasoning is flawed because although statistics show that one third of Islamism-related terrorist offences between 2005-2015 were committed by graduates, this is in line with the proportion of the general population that have attended higher education institutions (see here, paragraph 10).
I will always condemn expressions that cause offence, and I am sympathetic towards universities as they are under pressure to provide safe, comfortable learning environments. However, I feel that universities should be facilitating debate, equipping students during their studies with skills that enable them to confidently combat hate speech. Therefore, despite being largely compliant with Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and its interpretation, because UWE is subject to numerous laws and policies, students and academics are overprotected to the extent that the residues of free speech are constrained.