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Free speech in universities being limited

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Tim Dieppe comments on the report on Freedom of Speech in Universities which was issued by The Joint Committee on Human Rights this week.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) published a report on Freedom of Speech in Universities this week. The report highlights serious concerns over barriers to free speech and calls on the government and universities and students to take action.

The Committee is made up of MPs and Peers and is chaired by Harriet Harman MP. Christian Concern submitted written evidence to the inquiry which highlighted some of our cases and the status of the law.

The importance of free speech

The report clarifies that the law protects free speech, even when what is said may disturb or upset others. There are limits to free speech in law which prohibits speech which incites murder, violence or terrorism; stirs up racial hatred, or hatred to other groups; causes fear of violence, alarm or distress, constitutes harassment or is defamatory or malicious. The report recognises that free speech is foundational for a functioning democracy, and particularly important in universities where learning is advanced through dialogue and debate, and where there should be academic freedom.

Free speech is being inhibited

The JCHR inquiry found that free speech is being limited in universities due to a number of factors. These include intolerant attitudes, incidents of intimidatory behaviour, regulatory complexity, and fear and confusion about the Prevent duty.

Contentious issues are where emotions run highest and where free speech is more likely to be restricted. The report highlights that such issues include pro-life or anti-abortion views, transgender issues, Islamophobia, and secular criticism of religion.

Examples include the disruption of a pro-life event at Oxford University

A number of specific incidents are referenced in the report, including the recent attempt to ban the Christian Union at Balliol College, Oxford, from exhibiting at the freshers fair. Another incident highlighted was the disruption of an event organised by the Oxford Students for Life society. The disruption prevented the speakers from being heard for around 40 minutes and police had to be called to restore order.

Another incident discussed is the violent disruption of an event at Kings College London earlier this month where masked protestors stormed into the meeting, knocking a security guard unconscious and injuring a number of other staff and students in the process. They grabbed the microphone and used smoke bombs which triggered the fire alarm resulting in an evacuation of the building.

Student expelled for expressing biblical views

Disappointingly, the report makes no mention of the case of Felix Ngole which we highlighted in our submission to the inquiry. Mr Ngole was expelled from Sheffield University for his posts on Facebook in support of a biblical view of marriage. As I previously commented, it is extraordinary that a British university would consider it within their remit to ‘investigate’ social media posts. The University takes the view that expressing biblical views should be a bar from pursuing certain careers. This is an astonishing infringement of free speech that must be addressed.

Another case that we mentioned in our submission to the inquiry is that of Edward Phelan, also from the University of Sheffield. Mr Phelan was not allowed to pursue an academic paper of his choice because it had Christian elements in it. He also received personalised marking feedback criticising his Christian faith.

The best way to defeat error is with truth

Free speech is a precious freedom that people in precious generations have given their lives to defend. It is absolutely essential to have free speech in order for a democracy to be able to function properly. Furthermore, being able to express yourself is part of what it means to be human. We can’t really be ourselves if we are not free to say what we think.

In the end, truth will defeat error. The best way to challenge bad ideas is with good ideas. Banning certain ideas or people from speaking tends to be counterproductive in that it may cause people to think that these ideas or people are unanswerable. False ideas should be challenged in open debate and dialogue without fear of intimidation or being accused of some kind of ‘hate speech’ for robustly critiquing opposing views. The Bible instructs us to “demolish arguments” (2 Corinthians 10:5). Both Jesus and Paul engaged in robust debate which offended others.

Jesus died for free speech

As we celebrate Easter this weekend, it is worth remembering that Jesus was crucified because of what he said, not because of anything else he had done. In his trial before the high priest he was falsely condemned for blasphemy. In his trial before Pilate the accusation was about him claiming to be a King. Jesus said to Pilate:

“For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37)

In a sense then, it is true to say that Jesus died for exercising free speech.

We are called to speak the truth

We too are called to bear witness to the truth. The truth that Jesus died for our sins and rose again. The truth that he is the only way to God. The truth about marriage and sexual ethics. The truth about sex and gender. The truth about other religions. Such truths are sometimes unpopular, sometimes regarded as offensive, and sometimes lead to oppression or persecution. Nevertheless, it is the truth that we must stand for, and the truth that sets people free and that will win in the end.

How committed are you to speaking the truth? It may cost you your job, your university place, or your freedom? What we need now is a generation of Christians who are radically committed to speaking the truth in loving and caring ways, but without compromise. The freedom of the gospel is at stake.



Christian Concern written evidence to the JCHR Inquiry into Freedom of Speech in Universities.

Christian Concern: The Case of the Politically Incorrect Student

JCHR Freedom of Speech in Universities inquiry.