A new guide to the law about freedom of expression has been published by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The guide focusses on the law as it applies to universities and “other higher education environments”, a phrase so sterile that one would be forgiven for forgetting how the report touches on areas subject to intense, passionate debate across Europe and America.
After all, freedom of speech and expression are seen as under threat from a variety of public figures across the political spectrum, from Jonathon Pie – a comedy news reporter with over 45,000,000 views on his YouTube channel, and a self-described “lifelong Labour voter” to Tommy Robinson, former leader of the far-right English Defence League (EDL). As early as 2015, The Telegraph – a respected right-wing publication – was running headlines describing the “suppression of free speech on university campuses” as an “epidemic”.
The report takes a decidedly less excitable approach to the topic. Sparing no detail on British and European law, the guide offers a sobering, more grounded perspective on these issues than the ones usually offered by those on both sides of an often heated debate. As such, the report lands somewhere in the middle: it fails to condemn ‘no-platform’ policies, despite some seeing them as an affront to free speech – which see universities refuse to invite certain individuals or organisations to speak at their institution – but only in certain circumstances. It recognises that if there is no good reason for these policies – such as the protection of students’ welfare or the Student Union’s reputation – then they could undermine free expression.
The report is more enthusiastic in its support for safe spaces, though, “which aim to create welcoming, inclusive environments on campus, and ensure that people with particular protected characteristics are free from harassment and discrimination”, to use the report’s own definition, which recognises the spaces as “not unlawful”.
The report also touches on ‘trigger warnings’, another subject of debate. Trigger warnings are issued at the beginning of a talk, essay or video, and alert potential attendees, readers or watchers that the content discussed may be disturbing – such as including reference to rape, drug use or domestic abuse. These have drawn criticism in the past, often being seen as a sign of oversensitivity by some and as a barrier to exposure-based PTSD recovery by others. The guide is cautiously supportive of such warnings, though, arguing that they allow balanced debate without “causing harassment” for anyone it’s likely to ‘trigger’, asserting that, provided they don’t “risk unnecessarily putting people off participation”, they can help free speech, not hinder it.
In a time where discussion over freedom of speech and expression is becoming more and more hostile – especially around university campuses – a report that cuts through the noise will hopefully be welcomed by all. The Equality and Human Rights Commission worked with at least 10 other organisations, including the Home Office and Department of Education, in producing these guidelines, and the rigour and quality of research shows. It would be a shame if that went to waste.