Home Office guidance from Prevent on prevention of terrorism addresses many issues, including universities’ policy in relation to invitation of speakers onto their campuses.
The Home Office Guidance sets out the difficult task of balancing protection of open debate and freedom of expression with universities’ and student unions’ proper charitable and social responsibilities. It says that “Higher education institutions and student unions can be challenged on whether they have given due consideration to the public benefit and associated risks notably when they, or one of their affiliated societies, invite controversial or extremist speakers to address students.” Prevent also note that “The Education (2) Act 1986 also requires higher and further education institutions to maintain and update a code of practice on the freedom of speech, setting out procedures and conduct for organising and attending meetings.”
MeCCSA is concerned at the varied implementation and interpretation of these proposals. Our view is that the ability to question provocative or contentious speakers is a necessary part of the culture of vigorous debate that should be essential at any university. In our fields this is intensified because many members are engaged, among other things, in teaching about news and journalism, and the ability to invite in speakers from all sides of a debate, and to subject them to critical interview or questioning, is essential to student learning about ethical and responsible reporting. It is also vital that understanding of the sources and journalistic construction of a very wide range of views and opinions forms part of the student pedagogic experience, as well as being a necessary tool for the intelligent and informed citizen of a democracy.
Most universities are aware of the dilemma this poses, and have drawn up policy positions (or a Code as prescribed above) to make clear their institutional approach to such matters. We seek to ensure such Codes are well drafted and consistent between institutions, and we are actively involved in working toward such ends.
This issue will be discussed at the AGM during the Annual conference in January 2016.