Guide to Freedom of Speech

The following information provides practical advice to help you protect free speech at the University of Birmingham.

The Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech on Campus (PDF – 279KB) sets out the principles and procedures to be followed.

Download the Code of Practice (PDF – 279KB)

Who does the Code of Practice apply to?

  • University staff
  • University students
  • any other party

when organising events and/or speakers in the contexts below.

When and where does the Code of Practice apply?

  • University premises for events and meetings
  • off-campus activities in the University’s name
  • off-campus activities, organised by the University, which are promoted on campus

All students and staff of the University must familiarise themselves with the Code of Practice to ensure freedom of speech.

Why is freedom of speech important?

Freedom of speech is a key part of the higher education experience. Sharing ideas is crucial and it allows us to engage with different perspectives. Respectful debate enables us to challenge discrimination, intolerance and harmful attitudes.

As a higher education provider, the University has a legal responsibility to uphold freedom of speech. Section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 requires us to take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured.  The University is also a registered charity, with the charitable purpose to further students’ education for the public benefit. Charity law requires that freedom of speech allows views and opinions to be questioned and challenged, in an open accessible environment.

What is the aim of the Code of Practice?

The Code of Practice aims to provide clear procedures and policies which promote freedom of speech and academic freedom while protecting student and staff welfare.

Decisions about speakers and events should always seek to promote and protect the right to freedom of speech, and the starting position is that any event can go ahead. However, the Code of Practice should never facilitate hatred or bigotry. It exists to promote balanced, respectful debate.

When should freedom of speech be limited?

We have a legal duty to protect free speech. However, speech can and should be limited if it is thought to:

  • Cause fear or provocation of violence
  • Stir up hatred on grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation
  • Express extremist views that risk drawing people into terrorism or are shared by terrorist groups, or encourage terrorism-related offences
  • Cause a person harassment, alarm, or distress
  • Breach criminal law or charity law

I’m a staff member inviting an external speaker. What do I need to do?

The formal procedures laid out in the Code of Practice will not apply to the vast majority of University-organised teaching or research seminars.

If you’re organising an event as part of your normal teaching, research or professional activity on behalf of the University, you should contact your Head of School or the local contact at the relevant college, school or department (please refer to the Contacts list below). In most cases this is all that is required. If your event needs to be escalated, you will be informed, and will need to complete a Speaker Request Form (PDF – 167KB).

If you’re organising teaching or research events which fall under point 2.2 of the Code of Practice (eg inviting a potentially extremist speaker, a VIP speaker, or where other risks are raised by the event) you should fill out the Speaker Request Form (PDF – 167KB) to have your event approved. This will help you frame your request clearly, which helps the University to ensure that your speaker will speak safely, freely and within the law.  Your request form should be sent to your local contact at the relevant college, school or department.

Download the Speaker Request Form (PDF – 167KB)

I’m a student member inviting an external speaker. What do I need to do?

If you’re organising an event as part of a Guild Society, you should submit the Guild’s own Speaker Request Form to the Student Groups Coordinators. Registered committee members can find this form online.

If you’re organising an event as part of a school or college activity, or as a school or college-based society, you should refer to your local contact at the relevant college or school, and follow their procedure.

If you are not affiliated with the Guild or any school or college, you should contact Malene Stanley or Sarah Dugmore for advice on how to proceed.

Please refer to the Contacts list below.

How far in advance do I need to submit my form?

In most circumstances you will need to have the form counter-signed by a senior University officer, and you need to allow time for this. You should submit the form, ensuring you have allowed sufficient time, if needed, for the counter signatory to send the form to the Director of Conferences & Marketing (HAS) at least 21 days prior to the proposed event.

If the guidance notes indicate that you should deliver the form direct to the Director of Hospitality and Accommodation without a counter-signatory, this also needs to be at least 21 days before the event.

This allows time for any checks or any enquiries which may be necessary to be made, together with any special arrangements.

 

What can I do to support freedom of speech when planning my event?

To enable an event to go ahead, you may also consider some of the following steps:  

  • challenge high-risk speakers with opposing views
  • have an independent chairperson to facilitate an event, to make sure a range of viewpoints are heard
  • train staff on how to facilitate well-balanced debate
  • film the event
  • put additional security in place
  • ticket an event
  • request to see any materials in advance
  • ensure the speaker has read the University’s guide for Preparation for and Conduct of Meetings (PDF – 50KB)

Download the Preparation for and Conduct of Meetings guide (PDF – 50KB)

If you have any questions regarding the above, please refer to your local college or school contact or email fos-speaker-request@contacts.bham.ac.uk.

Freedom of Speech in Practice: Examples

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

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. 

Contacts

Freedom of Speech Contacts (External Speakers)
AreaPrimary contactSecondary contactEscalation route
COSS Julie Tomkinson Marie Greene Malene Stanley
EPS Alex Johl Jem Higgins Malene Stanley
MDS Karen Willis,
Andrew Francis
Robbie Roberts Malene Stanley
CAL Christine Richards Elaine Fulton Malene Stanley
LES Claire Cooper Jamie Pugh Malene Stanley
Student Groups associated with the College/School (not the guild) Need to go through the local college   Malene Stanley
Guild Adam Sheridan Samantha Macbeth,
Gemma Allport
Sarah Dugmore,
Malene Stanley
Chaplaincy Alex Ferranti Jon Elsmore Malene Stanley
Academic Services Jon Elsmore   Malene Stanley
Alumni Daniel O'Driscoll

Rebecca Mitchell,
Simon Lerwill

Malene Stanley
External Relations Dominic Benson Jo Kite Malene Stanley
Hospitality and Accommodation Services (HAS) Sarah Dugmore Malene Stanley Paddy Jackman
Legal Services Carolyn Pike    
Union Bookings Sarah Dugmore Malene Stanley Paddy Jackman
Hotel Richard Metcalfe Sarah Dugmore Malene Stanley
All other Professional Services Malene Stanley