Here are some examples of events that do require you to take action:
- A high-profile guest speaker or VIP
- The College Annual Lecture with a distinguished alumnus as the main guest speaker
- A University of Birmingham event held off campus with an external speaker
- Any event where a Member of Parliament is the guest speaker
- Alumni events with external speakers, even if there are no students attending
- An alumni-organised event within a college
- An event organised by a student society not affiliated to the Guild of Students (this must be registered with the relevant local college or department)
- A student society showing a film which has not been classified by the BBFC; the society must also ensure they have an entertainment licence
- Organising events and speakers in an online format
The following events do not need to apply the freedom of speech Code of Practice:
- Careers events, such as careers fairs or mock interviews
- Alumni recording a personal video on campus about themselves
- Video presentations in lectures
- Showing a film which has been classified by the BBFC, if you have an entertainment licence
It can feel challenging to establish a balance between promoting freedom of speech, protecting student and staff welfare, and ensuring the law is upheld. The following scenarios are intended to help explain how the Code of Practice would be applied. These examples are drawn from the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Freedom of expression: a guide for higher education providers and students’ unions in England and Wales.
Scenario 1: public protest
- A group of students organise a protest in a public area on campus, holding banners and handing out leaflets criticising the policies of the state of Israel.
Decision: the University allow this as a peaceful lawful protest and permit students to hand out leaflets, as no one is threatening violence or disorder against a specific individual. Security are made aware of the protest.
- During the protest a student defaces an Israeli flag with a swastika, and makes a Nazi salute.
Action to take: this individual’s action constitutes a public order offence and/or the offence of incitement to racial or religious hatred. Removing the student and allowing the protest to continue strikes the right balance between preventing unlawful acts and protecting free speech. The University must also consider steps to ensure Jewish students on campus do not feel discriminated against or harassed, and to foster good relations between Jewish and non-Jewish students.
Scenario 2: political group
- A far-right group applies to promote ‘Christian British identity’ at the Freshers’ Fair.
Decision: the application is rejected according to the Guild of Students’ own processes on the following grounds: the organisation does not provide impartial information; it promotes an issue not suitable for the context; and the topic is highly politically sensitive.
- The group complains to the Office for Students, arguing their right to free speech is being curtailed.
Action to take: the Office for Students upholds the decision, and no action should be taken. Students’ Unions are not obliged to ensure all views are represented at their events; this means that the University’s legal obligations under Section 23 of the Education Act do not apply.
Scenario 3: high-risk speaker
- An invited speaker has a history of associating with violent extremists and making statements that could risk drawing people into terrorism.
Decision: after consulting with the Prevent coordinator,the University agrees to approve the event if certain conditions are met. The speaker must agree to appear alongside another speaker with an alternative viewpoint; print materials to be given out at the event must be seen in advance; the event must be filmed. Other potential considerations the University might have offered include a solo event with a strong chairperson.
- The speaker agrees to the conditions.
Action to take: the event goes ahead. If the speaker had not agreed to the conditions, if no alternative viewpoint was available or if the print materials were deemed to pose a risk of drawing people into terrorism, the University would be entitled to postpone or cancel the event. The University would have taken ‘reasonably practicable’ steps to ensure freedom of speech.
Scenario 4: religious debate
- An atheist society affiliated to the Guild of Students holds a debate on whether God exists.
Decision: the Guild’s own Code of Practice has been applied to authorise this event. The University is aware of opposition to the event, and takes ‘reasonably practicable’ steps to allow it to go ahead. These require a range of views to be represented in the debate, and security to be present.
- The debate is disrupted by faith student activists in the audience.
Action to take: the views of both the speakers and the protestors are lawful, as free speech protected by Section 43 of the Education Act. Security should give the activists a reasonable opportunity to express their views; if they then refuse to leave or stop protesting, the activists may be removed to allow the event to proceed. Both groups share protected characteristics (religion and belief): this means the University must also consider steps to ensure both groups feel able and safe to organise future events.