Freedom of speech policy

University of Exeter policy on freedom of speech in relation to meetings and events held on University premises.

Fundamental principles

Universities have an important role to play as places of debate and discussion where ideas can be tested without fear of control, where students learn to challenge ideas and think for themselves, and where the pursuit of knowledge is underpinned by rationality.

Freedom of speech on campus: rights and responsibilities in UK universities (Universities UK, 2011)

The role of universities in ensuring free speech is reinforced in two pieces of legislation:

1. The 1986 Education Action states that: ‘persons concerned in the government of any establishment...shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.’

The University will not, therefore, as far as is reasonably practicable, deny access to its premises to individuals or bodies on the basis of their beliefs, views or policies.

2. The Equality Act 2010 covers the following protected characteristics: age, disability, gender, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief and sexual orientation.

The associated public sector equality duty requires universities, in the exercise of their functions, to have due regard to the need to:

  • eliminate discrimination, harassment and victimisation and any other conduct that is prohibited under the Act;
  • advance equality of opportunity between people who share a relevant protected characteristic and people who do not share it;
  • foster good relations between people who share a relevant protected characteristic and those who do not share it.

Code of Practice

This Code of Practice applies to all staff, students, governors, Students’ Guild and visiting speakers and all University of Exeter premises.

The University expects students, staff, governors, the Students’ Guild and visitors to ensure freedom of speech within the law is assured. Whilst there is no legal prohibition on offending others, the University nevertheless believes that discussion that is open and honest can take place only if offensive or provocative action and language is avoided. Students, staff, governors, the Students’ Guild and visiting speakers are therefore required to demonstrate sensitivity to the diversity of the University community and to show others respect.

An event which creates an environment of fear, harassment, intimidation, verbal abuse or violence, particularly as a result of age, disability, gender, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, and sexual orientation is likely to be unlawful.

  • If students, staff, governors or the Students’ Guild believe that an event they are organising poses a risk under this Code, they are required to refer the matter in the first instance to the Director of Communications and Marketing. No advertising of the event is permitted until a decision is reached on its compliance with the Code of Practice.
  • The Director of Communications and Marketing will refer the matter to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for External Affairs who will make an initial assessment. If he/she decides the event complies with the University’s Code of Practice it can go ahead. They may, however, require the organisers to put in place safeguards, such as extra security or a strong and well-informed chair with the power to intervene or close the event down if there is a breach of the Code. They will also require the organisers to record the event, so there is no dispute afterwards about what is said by whom.
  • A named Principal Organiser should be identified for each event who is responsible for the booking and control arrangements and conduct of the events including stewarding and moderating, chairing, monitoring and entry.
  • The organisers of the event will be responsible for any extra expense incurred.
  • If the DVC External Affairs decides the event poses too great a risk under the Code they will make a recommendation to deny access to University premises to the Vice-Chancellor’s Executive Group. The DVC External Affairs may decide to consult with students, staff or other groups before coming to decision, or take legal advice. VCEG’s decision will be final and will not be subject to appeal.
  • The expression of views that may be controversial, but do not breach the law, will not constitute reasonable grounds for refusal. Reasonable grounds for refusal would include: incitement to commit a criminal act; unlawful expression of views; support for an organisation whose aims are illegal; the creation of an environment likely to give rise to a breach of the peace.
  • If an event has been advertised, students and staff may still make representations to the DVC External Affairs if they feel it breaches the University’s Code of Practice. If the event is allowed to take place, they will be allowed the right to peaceful protest for one hour prior to the event taking place. They will not be permitted to interfere with the running of the event.
  • Wilful breach of this Code will be dealt with under the University’s disciplinary procedures and, if necessary, by recourse to law.
  • The University will withhold the right to use University premises if it fears there is a likelihood of this Code being breached.
  • The Guild actively encourages debate and political activity. As a representative body for all students at the University, we do have an equal opportunities policy to ensure that student-led events are conducted in a safe space for attendees, free from discriminatory activity. All student groups looking to hold an event with external speakers should contact the Activities and Volunteering department for assistance with the event and to ensure all logistical considerations have been factored in. Ultimately it is the University’s decision whether to allow an event to take place on its premises.
    We don’t have a social media policy, although all elected officers (including society officers) have a code of conduct which they have to sign up to. If they were to break this code of conduct on social media, it would be treated exactly the same as any other breach.
    Student groups affiliated to the Guild or the Athletic Union are allowed to leaflet on campus and the only policy that guides them is the same code of conduct, which ensures that material produced isn’t in breach of our equal opportunities policy. Non affiliated student groups or commercial bodies can promote themselves on campus, although this needs to be arranged through our Sales team, who would apply a charge for their presence.

If you are proposing to run an event and are concerned that it may constitute a breach of the Code of Practice, please contact in the first instance the Director of Communications and Corporate Affairs, Jane Chafer.