Freedom of Speech statement

Academic freedom and freedom of speech are fundamental to our nature as a global University. In the pursuit of new knowledge, free and open debate is crucial. We will therefore seek at all times to encourage a culture of vigorous and fearless discussion within the law that ensures critical thinking and which challenges violent extremist and illegal narratives and those who seek to promote them.

Professor Sir Steve Smith


Freedom of speech policy

The University of Exeter policy on freedom of speech in relation to meetings and events held on University premises is set out below. Please note that if inviting a speaker onto campus or to events held in the name of the institution, the UOE speakers and events policy or the Speakers and events process cornwall must be followed. These have been developed to provide support to allow events to go ahead wherever possible, with appropriate controls in place to protect the University, the organiser of the event and those who attend.

Fundamental principles

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

  1. The Education Act 1986 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, the Students’ Guild, visiting speakers and to all events and activities held within 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. There is also an expectation that students, staff, governors, the Students’ Guild and visiting speakers will demonstrate sensitivity to the diversity of the University community and to show others respect.

The University will always seek, in the first instance, to allow an event to go ahead. However, an event which creates an environment of fear, harassment, intimidation, verbal abuse or violence (or which encourages support for or participation in violent acts), 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 and will not be permitted to go ahead.

The following procedure should be followed where there are concerns:

  1. If students, staff, governors 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 Corporate Affairs. No advertising of the event is permitted until a decision is reached on its compliance with the Code of Practice.
  2. The Director of Communications and Corporate Affairs 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 may also require the organisers to record the event, so there is no dispute afterwards about what was said by whom.
  3. 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.
  4. The organisers of the event will be responsible for any extra expense incurred.
  5. 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 (VCEG). 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.
  6. 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 (e.g. an organisation prohibited under law); the creation of an environment likely to give rise to a breach of the peace.
  7. 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.
  8. Wilful breach of this Code will be dealt with under the University’s disciplinary procedures and, if necessary, by recourse to law.
  9. The University will withhold the right to use University premises if it fears there is a likelihood of this Code being breached.

The Students’ Guild

The Students’ Guild (‘the Guild’) actively encourages debate and political activity. In general, terms the Guild supports the aims and objectives of this policy. As a representative body for all students at the University, the Guild has an equal opportunities policy to ensure that student-led events are conducted in a manner free from discriminatory and illegal activity.

All affiliated student groups and Guild staff looking to hold an event with external speakers must complete a speaker or debate risk assessment.

When approved via the Guild internal review process, events are advertised and notified to the university (events are then reviewed per the applicable university speaker policy). Ultimately, it is the University’s decision whether to allow an event to take place on its premises.

The Guild risk assessment process for external speakers can impose control measures (eg Guild staff in attendance; briefings to chairpersons; restrictions to topics under discussion etc) or prohibit a speaker (at the time of writing this has never happened).

Control measures can be appealed. This uses the Guild complaints procedure, which is used for both formal and informal complaints processes. The Guild complaints procedure applies to all affiliated student events and is applicable to all issues relating to Freedom of Speech, including no platforming; topic restrictions; restricting access to a meeting/service or information; advertising.

Normally student groups are supported by relevant Guild staff.

The Guild is legally required to have a complaints procedure and complaints between student groups cannot be passed to an external body (the University of Exeter) for resolution as an initial step.

The Guild recognises the University of Exeter will have a legitimate interest in some of the issues arising from some speaker or Guild society events if the complaint procedure is invoked relating to freedom of speech. The Guild senior management at their discretion will notify the University of Exeter regarding complaints relating to freedom of speech. Sufficient information will be provided to allow the university to commence step one above where concerns are raised.

It is possible that the University process described in this document and the Guild complaint procedure may come to a different conclusion. Ultimately, it is the University’s decision whether to allow an event to take place on its premises.

The Guild do not have a social media policy, although all elected officers (including society officers) must sign up to a code of conduct. If the code is breached, it is treated on the same basis as any other breach.

Student groups affiliated to the Guild can leaflet on campus and the policy that guides them is the same code of conduct, which ensures that material produced isn’t in breach of the Guild’s equal opportunities policy. The Guild produces a Guidance note regarding Political and Campaigning Guild Affiliated Groups.

Non-affiliated student groups or commercial bodies may promote themselves on campus, although this needs to be arranged through the Guild’s Sales team, who will apply a charge for their support.

Athletic Union

Student groups affiliated to the Athletic Union can leaflet on campus subject to university control procedures.

FXU (Falmouth and Exeter Students Union)

Information on the FXU policy on freedom of speech and related subjects can be found on the FXU website.