Russell Group universities set out principles to protect free speech

22 April 2021

A statement of principles setting out how its universities protect freedom of speech and will continue to do so has been published by the Russell Group.

The statement published today (22 April 2021) underlines the determination of the UK's leading research-intensive universities to protect freedom of expression and academic freedom 

Backed by the Vice Chancellors of the 24 members of the Russell Group of research intensive universities, the statement of principles reflects the significant work those universities already do to protect free speech, facilitate academic debate and support diverse research. 

It also sets out how Russell Group universities work to facilitate and enable the free and open discussion of challenging or controversial ideas, including in the work we do with our student unions.

A recent King’s College London study found 81% of students think free speech is more important than ever and a 2020 survey reported just six of more than 10,000 events planned at 61 students' unions were cancelled last year, with 4 of these cancellations being the result of a failure to meet administrative requirements.

The statement comes after a series of proposals were published by the Government to strengthen free speech and academic freedom, with new legislation expected later this year in the Queen’s Speech. It reinforces the clear commitment of Russell Group universities to the letter and spirit of the robust legal framework already in place to guarantee free speech and academic freedom within the UK.  

Commenting, Chief Executive of the Russell Group Tim Bradshaw said:

"Free speech and academic freedom are core values for our universities who work hard to create an environment where a diverse range of views and ideas can be aired and debated across all disciplines. 

 “Disagreement is a fundamental part of debate and has been key to advancing knowledge and gaining different perspectives on everything from ethics and history to genetics and theoretical physics. 

“Our universities will always champion the importance of free speech, uphold the legal protections already in place and, if Government feels it is necessary to enhance protections further, we will work with them to find proportionate solutions.

“This statement underlines our determination to ensure campuses remain places where students and staff are exposed to a diversity of ideas and views. We hope the Government recognise that and works with us so any new measures reflect the work already being done.” 

Further Information

The full text of the Russell Group Free Speech Statement is as follows:

Academic freedom and freedom of speech anchor the commitment of our universities to the open and rigorous contestation of ideas. They are fundamental to our purpose as academic institutions, helping to drive knowledge and discovery in research and education. Freedom of speech extends to all who wish to seek, receive or impart information and ideas of all kinds, and includes the right to protest peacefully.

Facilitating an environment where all students and staff are able to inquire, study, and discuss is a responsibility our universities take extremely seriously. Russell Group universities work closely with staff, students' unions and other organisations to defend and maintain freedom of expression on campus. Speaker events addressing diverse views on complex issues go ahead every week at universities across the UK. 

In such an environment, the ideas and views of different members of university communities will naturally often come into conflict. Our universities provide a wide range of fora where free and frank intellectual exchanges take place and the diverse views of individuals are tolerated, whilst also assuring the safety of students, staff and members of the public.   

The academic freedom of teaching and research staff is protected through clear contractual arrangements, and in legislation. The autonomy this provides helps protect research and ensure curricula are diverse, considering the competing merits of different schools of thought. Across all disciplines, helping students develop the ability to argue a case and use appropriate evidence to challenge opposing views is an important part of the individual and collective educational experience at UK universities. 

The right to free speech is not only central to the culture of our institutions, it is protected by law. In limited circumstances it can also be restricted by law. For example, free speech does not usually extend to hate speech, or to unlawful discrimination, harassment and victimisation that undermine the ability of students, researchers and academics to engage fully in university life. Where that takes place, our universities make no apology for taking swift action to stop it.  

This commitment to upholding the legal protections afforded our university communities is entirely consistent with a wider commitment to the free and open discussion of challenging or controversial ideas. Where, in exceptional circumstances, our universities need to apply restrictions, they do so in a manner mindful of the fundamental importance of freedom of speech. By fostering a culture of mutual toleration in our universities, we strengthen freedom of speech by ensuring that all voices can be heard. 

Statement of Principles on Freedom of Speech

The Russell Group’s response to the Government’s proposed measures to strengthen free speech and academic freedom at universities in England (16 Feb) can be found here.

 

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