A report released Tuesday by the joint committee on human rights (JCHR) in the UK found that safe-spaces and no-platforming activities on campus, while not pervasive, are a threat to free speech. The report also concluded that university bureaucrats played a role in chilling speech. From the Guardian:
A parliamentary committee has expressed serious concerns about barriers to in universities, warning that safe-space policies on campuses are “problematic” and often lead to the marginalisation of minority groups’ views…
The committee’s report, published on Tuesday, said that although the problem was not pervasive, intolerant attitudes – often incorrectly using the banner of no-platforming and safe space policies – were nevertheless interfering with free speech on campus.
It said safe-space policies, originally intended to ensure that minority or vulnerable groups felt secure, were being used by some people to seek to prevent the free speech of others whose views they disagreed with.
The committee, which is made up of MPs and peers, identified problems with overly cautious student unions worried about breaking the rules; unduly complicated guidance from the Charity Commission, which regulates student unions as registered charities; and fear and confusion surrounding the government’s anti-terrorism Prevent strategy.
The BBC adds a bit more from the report:
Harriet Harman, chairwoman of the joint committee on human rights, called for the defence of “freedom of expression” and warned “there is a problem of inhibition of free speech in universities”.
The committee’s report says protesters should not be allowed to stop student societies from holding meetings or events or to use tactics of intimidation.
“Masked protest, intimidatory filming or physical disruption is unacceptable and must be stopped,” says the report.
“Students must respect the right of other students to say things, no matter how unpleasant, offensive or insulting. They can protest, but they can’t stop them,” said Ms Harman.
Last month I wrote about one instance of “no-platforming that took place at the University of the West of England when a Tory MP named Jacob Rees-Mogg had his speech shut down by a group of masked protesters who were shouting he was a fascist.
The report said incidents like that were not pervasive though other reports, like this one from the Telegraph, have suggested a problem exists at most British universities:
In the last year alone, 21 universities have banned high profile speakers from attending lectures, debates or speeches because of their views, including Oxford, King’s College London and University College London.
According to the survey, carried out by online magazine Spiked, more than 60 per cent of universities now “severely restrict” free speech, meaning they actively censor particular ideas, speakers and texts on campus.
No-platforming, whereby student unions or universities formally ban an individual from speaking on campus, has become become increasingly commonplace – with the likes of Germaine Greer, Eric Pickles and several UKIP MEPs among those blacklisted.
So the JCHR report is seen as presenting something of a middle-ground. It also found that bad advice from universities was part of the problem. That’s also the case here in the U.S. where some schools continue to promote policies that are not in keeping with the law.
In the UK mob action still isn’t as common as it is here though the JCHR report admits it could already be creating a broader chilling effect on free speech. That’s the purpose of a masked mob like this, to intimidate and silence.