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Humanists UK welcomes JCHR guidance on protecting free speech in universities

In response to calls from Humanists UK and others, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has today published comprehensive guidance on the law protecting and limiting free speech for students and universities. This guidance, which outlines five key principles for upholding free speech, highlights the importance of doing so in these institutions which form the bastion of education and learning in the UK. Humanists UK, which gave evidence to the Committee last year, has welcomed this guidance.

In 2017, the Committee launched an inquiry into freedom of speech in universities and whether there was evidence that it was being illegitimately limited by universities or student unions. The inquiry found that there are a number of factors limiting free speech including intolerant attitudes, leading to unions incorrectly using the ‘no platforming’ policies, incidents of intimidation by protestors, student unions being unclear or over-cautious about allowing free speech that might cause offence, and confusion regarding the extent of the ‘Prevent duty’ relating to counter-terrorism.

During an oral evidence session and in written submissions to the inquiry, Humanists UK and its student section Humanist Students called for clearer official guidance to be issued for universities and student unions on the current law and obligations towards protecting free speech. This is something Humanists UK has been calling for since at least 2011, when Humanist Students societies first experienced issues with SUs blocking their free speech. The Committee has heeded this call.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson, who gave oral evidence to the Committee in its inquiry, commented, ‘We are delighted that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has published comprehensive guidance to address the creep of censorship and intolerance in our universities. We believe that this will go a long way in preventing the illegitimate shutting down of debate and activities on campus which has affected many universities in recent years, including several Humanist Students societies.

‘Although it does not address specifically the right to freely critique religious beliefs, it will be a useful document for decision-makers in universities and student unions in understanding both the importance of free speech and the very limited instances where it can be legitimately curtailled.’

Notes

For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on richy@humanism.org.uk or 0781 55 89 636.

Read the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ guide: https://humanism.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Free-Speech-Guidance-for-universities-and-students-organising-events.pdf

Read more about our campaign work on free speech and expression: https://humanism.org.uk/campaigns/human-rights-and-equality/freedom-of-speech-and-expression/

Read more about Humanist Students:https://humanism.org.uk/students/

Humanist Students is the student section of Humanists UK, the national charity representing the non-religious. At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have.

Humanists UK recently changed its name from the British Humanist Association: https://humanism.org.uk/2017/05/22/bha-becomes-humanists-uk/

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