Durham Students’ Union (DSU) has said that Universities Minister Michelle Donelan should “value the pursuit of truth, as well as freedom of speech” following comments the Minister made in parliament on 22nd February.
The Universities Minister Michelle Donelan has instructed the Office for Students (OfS) to contact Durham University in light of the SU’s free speech policy, asking the watchdog to to contact Vice-Chancellor Stuart Corbridge to express her concern.
This followed the submission of a written parliamentary question by Julian Lewis, MP for New Forest East, which specifically concerned Durham SU’s new free speech policy, asking “what steps [the government] plans to take to block reported proposals”.
He also questioned “what the legal basis is for student unions to exercise such powers against speakers whom they judge to be controversial”, in the context of recent government proposals for those who feel their free speech has been impinged on, such as by being no-platformed, to seek legal recourse.
Ms Donelan, the Universities Minister, replied, “To give a student union this power over external speakers is wholly inappropriate: no university should ever grant a student union any authority or role in vetting, limiting or otherwise overseeing which external speakers may be invited to speak on campus, or under what circumstances they may do so.
The freedom of speech policy, which was first reported by Palatinate, means that student groups will be required to inform Durham SU of any event that involves external speakers at least two weeks prior to the event, and any requests for external speakers that are “controversial or higher risk” will be required to be requested with four weeks’ notice. This will apply to events held on and off campus, and both digital and in-person events.
The policy gives Durham SU the right to cancel, prohibit or postpone any event involving an external speaker, if the policy is not adhered to or if risks cannot be mitigated successfully.
Responding to the development, SU president Seun Twins told Palatinate, “A poor article led to a misinformed question which led to an ignorant answer. The right to speak freely comes with a duty to speak responsibly. It would be helpful if the Minister stopped suggesting that students’ unions are at fault for following the law.
“We’d hope that those interested in the success of higher education would value the pursuit of truth, as well as freedom of speech. Sadly, those with a national platform choose too often to be outraged rather than educated, and speak about things they don’t understand but don’t make any effort to check.
“We’re always delighted to speak about how students contribute to a curious, dynamic, exciting intellectual community at Durham University, if we’re asked. Common courtesy as well as basic preparation might have saved the Minister from wasting time asking her officials to pursue a fictitious problem, and she could have focussed on the real issues facing students right now, such as their housing, mental health, assessment and employment.
“Durham University, the Charity Commission, the student body, and the general public all understand that freedom of speech is not absolute and we share a moral and legal responsibility to support freedom of speech within the law.
“Education law and charity law requires students’ unions to account for the activities of student groups, and two weeks’ notice of an intent to invite a guest speaker is reasonable, has been practice for some time without presenting any difficulty, and supports Durham University’s own policy.”
A spokesperson for the OfS said: “Free speech and academic freedom are essential to teaching and research. Universities and colleges have legal duties to protect both free speech and academic freedom, and their compliance with these responsibilities forms an important part of their conditions of registration with the OfS.
“We are considering information referred to us about this specific matter in line with our normal monitoring processes. As is standard practice, we cannot comment on individual cases”.
Durham University said it was “committed to freedom of expression within the law and to the safety of staff, students and visitors to the university” and that they would work with student leaders to ensure its policies are upheld.”
A spokesperson said: “Our policy statement and our code of practice on freedom of expression set out clear expectations and processes for activities affiliated to, funded by or branded as Durham University”.
“The University’s commitment to secure freedom of expression within the law extends to Durham Students’ Union which is an independent organisation that publishes its own freedom of expression statement. The university works with students leaders to ensure all activities meet the expectations of our policy statement and code of practice”.
Image: James Tillotson