Student petitions to ban university campus talks not compatible with free speech law
No-platform policies that give students the chance to bar controversial public figures from their universities could be unlawful, a top barrister argues.
Christopher McCall QC (pictured below) — a charity and private client barrister at commercial set Maitland Chambers — made his comments in a confidential 37-page legal opinion, where he argued that the policies may be incompatible with freedom of speech law.
There is an increasing concern that university culture in modern Britain is becoming dangerously sanctimonious, and in turn is destroying free speech. First there was the Blurred Lines controversy, and then came the — ultimately unsuccessful — ‘Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford’ campaign. Some universities banned The Sun, another banned a T-shirt with Jesus and the prophet Muhammad on it. Universities have undeniably become pretty ban-happy.
More recently, students have tried to use the National Union of Students’ (NUS) no-platform policy to ban well-known figures from speaking on university campuses. Famous examples include controversial feminist author Germaine Greer — who made comments about Caitlyn Jenner than some people considered transphobic — and un-PC Vine ‘celeb’ Dapper Laughs.
While likes of legal commentator David Allen Green have spoken out against this ‘ban culture’, McCall’s comments have now cast doubt on its lawfulness. He has raised concerns about compatibility with s43 of the Education Act 1986, which says:
Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies 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.
He did say, however, that no-platform policies are legal when applied to members of certain proscribed groups, most obviously terrorists.
His opinion, however, seems to have fallen on deaf ears. The NUS has said that it could see “no reason” to amend its position, so any policy change looks unlikely for now.