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Joint Freedom of Speech statement

Freedom of speech is 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 promote a culture of vigorous and fearless debate within the law built on the principle of tolerance of different views and beliefs. We will ensure a high quality student experience by actively promoting free discussion and interrogation of challenging and sometimes controversial ideas, and ensure that our academic staff are able to undertake teaching and research without hindrance of their right to freedom of speech beyond the limitations of the law.

Professor Lisa Roberts

Professor Lisa Roberts
President and Vice-Chancellor

Education Officer, Exeter Students' Guild

President, Falmouth and Exeter Students' Union

Freedom of Speech Policy

1. Introduction

The University of Exeter is committed to the active promotion of freedom of speech within the law and thus to ensure that our students and staff are able to discuss and debate ideas freely.

In actively promoting freedom of speech, the University will work closely with our student unions, which are separate legal entities, but which are subject to clear legal expectations with regard to the protection of freedom of speech when hosting events on University property.

Our approach to ensuring freedom of speech within the law will be based on the following principles:

(a) Freedom of speech is at the heart of all democratic societies and a foundation stone of higher education.

(b) The promotion of a culture of tolerance of differing views and perspectives and an acceptance that, in a free and open environment of academic debate, ideas will be robustly contested and challenged. 

(c) The need, on occasion, to balance the right to freedom of speech against the need reasonably to protect the rights of others.

(d) The need, when balancing rights, to ensure that this is done in a way that is proportionate (thus meeting a high and evidenced bench mark of appropriateness) and legal, and informed by an assessment of whether any balancing action could be undertaken in a way that is less restrictive.

(e) That any restriction that may be required shall be an exception.

2. Speakers and Events

A crucial part of our approach to promoting freedom of speech within the law is the way in which we encourage a culture of open debate through inviting external speakers onto our campuses to discuss important and sometimes challenging issues. To support and promote external speakers and associated events, the University and our student unions’ have developed speakers and events policies.

The University will always seek to allow a speaker to speak and an event to go ahead with minimal mitigation, but we recognise that, in certain cases, it will be necessary to put in place arrangements to ensure fair and open debate within the law, a balance of viewpoints and the safety of our students and staff.  

The University works closely with our student unions to ensure that we have robust, fair and transparent arrangements in place to manage speaker events within the expectations of the law and regulation that take place on its premises.  Our approach is set out in three key policies:

(a) The University of Exeter Speakers and Events Policy.

(b) The Cornwall Speakers and Events Policy (for those events taking place on our Cornwall campuses).

(c) The External Speaker Framework of the Exeter Students’ Guild.

(d) The Guest Speaker Policy of FX Plus.

3. Our Policies and Procedures

We will ensure that there is no hindrance beyond the requirements of the law placed on a member of the University’s right to freedom of speech through any relevant policy or procedure, particularly the following:

(a) Our disciplinary procedures for students and staff.

(b) Our contractual arrangements for staff.

(c) Our contractual arrangements with students.

(d) Our arrangements for the management of speakers and events on University property (see Section 2).

(e) Our processes for the reporting of concerns.

4. Freedom of Speech and the Law

In ensuring the active promotion of freedom of speech within the law, the University will be mindful of the following legislation:

(a) Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023

An Act to make provision in relation to freedom of speech and academic freedom in higher education institutions and in students’ unions; and for connected purposes. Find out more.

(b) Section 43 of the Education Act 1986

Which places a duty upon universities to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure freedom of speech on its premises.  This duty also applies to student unions where university premises are being used to host a union speaker/event.

(c) The Education Act 1994

Which places financial and governance oversight duties upon universities with regard to student unions.

(d) The Human Rights Act 1998

Which establishes the individual’s right to freedom of expression in UK Law.

(e) Charity Law (mainly Charities Act 2011)

That includes a duty placed upon charities to ensure freedom of speech within the law.

(f) The Equality Act 2010 (including the public sector equality duty)

That places duties upon public authorities to prevent discrimination on the basis of protected characteristics as set out in the Act. The University also has a duty to foster positive relations between communities.

(g) Health and Safety Law

Which places duties upon public authorities to ensure compliant arrangements for safe and healthy working and operations within its premises.

(h) The Prevent Duty

Which places a duty under the powers of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 on relevant higher education bodies to prevent students and staff from being drawn into support for or participation in terrorism.

Examples of illegal speech

The University regards the following as examples of illegal speech:

(i) Speech that encourages or supports violence against specific groups or individuals.

(ii) Speech that encourages support for or participation in terrorism as defined by the Terrorism Act 2001.

(iii) Speech that encourages or supports any other form of criminal activity.

Normally, speech that may cause offence to individuals or specific groups and is not illegal speech as defined in (i) and (ii) above, while not necessarily supported or encouraged by the University, will be permitted, although under certain circumstances only with appropriate mitigation (see section 3).

The University recognises that its legal duties must on occasion be balanced against one another, particularly with regard to our general duty of care to staff and students, and we will ensure that any decision taken is subject to a reasonableness test (for example: where a complaint is made about a speaker or event on the grounds of perceived harassment or offence). This will include an assessment of the potentially disproportionate impact upon those who are vulnerable and protected under the Equality Act 2010.

While we will, as part of our duty of care to our students and staff, offer support to those who have been negatively impacted by the free expression of controversial or challenging ideas or views, we will not seek to prevent or sanction speech that is within the law.  

We will also seek to ensure that our policies and procedures in this area reflect published best practice, such as the EHRC guidance to universities on freedom of expression.

The University’s statement on academic freedom, while closely linked with our freedom of speech statement and policy, is defined under a separate agreement.

5. Raising Concerns

The University Freedom of Speech policy is owned by the Compliance, Governance and Risk directorate.

If you wish to raise a concern about the policy or its application, please contact the Divisional Director of University Corporate Services by e-mail at