The Challenge of Free Speech in Universities

Universities in the UK have been at the centre of significant controversy for many years now. Problems surrounding tuition fees, finances, and educational value, have presented many issues for higher education establishments all around the UK.

New challenges seem to arise on a near constant basis, each one delving into a new area of controversy. In recent years, one of the biggest challenges to hit universities surrounds the protection of free speech. This is an ongoing problem that universities are struggling to address.

What Is the Protection of Free Speech?

University is commonly regarded to be a place where young adults have complete freedom to express themselves in a unique setting. With such a large student base, universities allow students with certain views to easily meet and debate principles with other like-minded students. In the past, this has led to countless protests where students have opposed political reforms, supported certain causes, and stood up for the rights of students studying within the UK.

This, in many ways, is why such a major controversy has arisen over the protection of free speech. The definition of free speech is ‘The power or right to express one’s opinions without censorship, restraint, or legal penalty.’, which is a legal right afforded to everyone in the UK. The right to free speech is protected under both the Education Act 1986 and the European Convention on Human rights.

How Is Free Speech at Risk?

The challenge that universities are facing, in part, is the quick reversal of opinions surrounding free speech in higher education establishments. For many years, universities have been accused of not monitoring free speech to a high enough degree, and that certain groups were given too much freedom to express controversial, offensive, and fascist views. Now, there is concern over the control that universities have over limiting student exposure to certain opinions.

There are two sides to the argument over whether free speech in universities is at risk or not, and where is the limit to what is acceptable, and what isn’t. On one side, it is claimed that the university culture is thriving, with little limit placed on what can and can’t be said. The other side believes that too many restrictions are being placed on certain groups, whose beliefs and opinions may not match the larger majority.


The proposed restrictions have caused a significant debate to arise over the act of ‘no-platforming’. This is where the National Union of Students restrict certain groups from expressing their views. This could be in the form of debates with the NUS or running for an election to obtain an NUS position. Around two thirds of the members of the NUS believe that the restrictions put in place are perfectly justified.

The concept of the no-platforming ban is designed to protect other students from the offensive, abusive, or discriminative views of other students. However, it also goes against the universities requirement to respect and uphold the free speech of everyone.

The list of organisations on the NUS no-platforming list is relatively small, containing primarily extremist groups. However, controversial actions and protests have arisen as a result of restrictions in multiple universities.

Safe Space

In addition to no-platforming, there is also the policy of ‘safe space’, which is being debated. This originated as a policy to indicate that anti-LGBT behaviour would not be tolerated within an institution, particularly a university setting. As the concept of safe spaces has been gradually adopted in the UK, it too has faced controversy.

The self-limitation of information can also be considered to be a breach in the free speech protection policies. Implementing safe spaces can be seen as banning the open discussion of opinions and beliefs, in a similar way to no-platforming.

Recently, the former universities minister, Joe Johnson, has spoken out about the universities stances on ensuring that freedom of speech will be maintained, having shared concerns over the restrictive policies in place. This sparks the question of, what is next for universities?

How Can Universities Overcome the Problem?

The challenge of maintaining free speech is one that universities are going to be continuously tasked with controlling. The concept of censorship is very difficult to address, with both sides of the debate strongly responding to what they believe should be implemented, or removed, from universities.

For now, universities have the responsibility to uphold free speech, with the exception of when that free speech is designed to encourage a violent reaction. The prospect of fines being implemented when free speech is barred, is also another challenge that universities may have to face.

As universities in the UK are institutes for higher learning, it falls to them to enable students to see every side of a debate and give them the tools to make their own decisions.