Durham Students’ Union has accused the UK government of “empowering Holocaust deniers and flat-earthers” through its new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which legally obliges students’ unions to take steps to protect free speech.
The Bill, which may still be amended before it becomes law, would legally require universities to defend free speech and “help stamp out unlawful ‘silencing'”. This legal duty would also apply to students’ unions which “will have to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure lawful freedom of speech”.
The government claims it “has been clear throughout that it is important to distinguish between lawful, if offensive, views on one hand and unacceptable acts of abuse, intimidation, and violence on the other”. But Anna Marshall, Durham SU’s Opportunities Officer, told Palatinate that the government needed to “take the time to explain why they’re empowering Holocaust deniers and flat-earthers to weaponise their hatred and stupidity.”
The proposed legislation states that membership of students’ unions should not be denied to any student society on the basis of “its policy or objectives or the ideas, beliefs or views of any of its members”. It also allows staff, students and visiting speakers who have “suffered adverse consequences” to sue the university or the students’ union if either has failed to comply with its duties to defend free speech set out in the legislation.
The Bill would give the Office for Students the power to fine students’ unions for failing to comply with its duties to safeguard free speech.
The Opportunities Officer claimed in response that “Universities and students’ unions are being targeted by baseless claims that cost time and money to debunk, which could instead be used to promote and celebrate the innovative, forward-thinking, intellectually-free culture we have at Durham.”
“The Bill is widely acknowledged as flawed and unenforceable. We share the Russell Groups sentiment that protecting freedom of speech is important, and there is already Education Law and Charity Law that guides us in doing this, but we don’t share the Government’s obsession with fighting culture wars instead of solving any actual problems in higher education.”
She added, when asked if it would lead to changes in SU policy, “we don’t change our practice in response to a draft bill, particularly one so badly written. We’ll wait until we see the final Act as passed, hopefully after substantial amendments to help it make sense. We will always act lawfully, but the welfare of students has to be our first concern.”
The Bill passed its second reading in Parliament with 364 Conservative and DUP MPs voting in favour and 216 from Labour and other parties against. It is now at the committee stage, meaning it will be subject to scrutiny and amendments by a Public Bill Committee of MPs.
The news comes after Durham SU passed a motion in February that requires all student groups to confirm all their external speakers with the SU at least two weeks prior to the events. Four weeks’ notice must be given to the SU of “controversial or higher risk” speakers. The policy also gives Durham SU the right to cancel or postpone an event involving an external speaker if risks cannot be mitigated successfully.
In response to questions in Parliament about the SU’s motion, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said that “to give a students’ union this power over external speakers is wholly inappropriate”. She also instructed the Office for Students to contact Durham University in light of the SU’s policy to express her concern.
In response, SU President Seun Twins told Palatinate that “the right to speak freely comes with a duty to speak responsibly”. She accused the minister of saying that “students’ unions are at fault for following the law”.
Image: James Tillotson