Student union policy could see 'controversial' speeches approved in advance and organisers forced to invite additional guests for 'balance'
By Camilla Turner, Education Editor, and Mason Boycott-Owen
Telegraph Online – 1 March 2021
The university watchdog has been told by ministers to launch an investigation into Durham University over its new external speaker policy. The Office for Students (OfS) has been asked to investigate the Russell Group institution after the students’ union announced that it will vet all “high-risk” speakers who wish to speak both on and off campus. It is believed to be the first university to come under fire over its policies since the Government announced a crackdown on attempts to limit free speech on campus.
Last month, The Telegraph revealed that Durham’s new policy means that student societies must inform the Durham Students’ Union at least two weeks before a speaker gives a talk or four weeks if they are deemed “controversial.” Speakers may even be asked to provide a copy of the speech to be approved before it is delivered, as well as organisers being forced to add additional speakers and attendees to give a “balance of perspectives.” The move will give the Students Union the right to cancel any event involving an external speaker. A speaker could be considered as high risk if they are “widely regarded as controversial” or if they have “links to any person or groups connected with controversy.”
Now Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, has intervened by asking the OfS to investigate and to contact Durham’s vice chancellor to express her concern. She said:
“This government has been clear in its commitment to strengthen academic freedom and ensure that our universities are places where free speech can thrive. If it has been accurately reported in the press, the decision by Durham University is gravely disappointing and not in line with our high expectations for universities in this area. 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 minister was answering a parliamentary question by Dr Julian Lewis MP, who asked what steps have been taken to block proposals from Durham’s student union to vet external speakers. Ms Donelan went on to say that applying
“intrusive procedures on a blanket basis, such as asking all speakers to submit their speeches in advance, is unnecessary and inappropriate”.
She also said that giving student unions
“de facto control of who can speak on campus”
is completely unacceptable.
In February, the Government proposed a raft of new laws to bolster free speech at universities, amid concerns about the rise of “silencing and censoring” both academics and students on campus. One of the major legislative changes the Government plans to introduce would enable academics and students to seek compensation through the courts if their free speech has been impinged on. This would give a new, legal recourse to students who have been expelled from their course, academics who have been dismissed from their posts, or speakers who have been “no-platformed” over their views. Other proposed changes to the law will ensure student unions, as well as universities, are subject to the duties to promote free speech.
An OfS spokesman 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 they are
"committed to freedom of expression within the law and to the safety of staff, students and visitors to the university"
and that they work with student leaders to ensure its policies are upheld. A spokesman 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 student leaders to ensure all activities meet the expectations of our policy statement and code of practice."