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This Library Note provides an overview of the statutory provisions governing freedom of speech in the higher education sector. It then briefly discusses the relationship between the duty to protect the right to freedom of speech and the obligation to protect staff and students from radicalism and preventing extremism on campuses. It summarises guidance that has been issued by the sector on this matter and outlines the Government’s policy in this area. The Note finally provides a short summary of the Prevent duty and specifically the obligation it places on higher education institutions in respect of external speakers and events, and provides examples where external speakers have been banned from university campuses.

Legal Framework for Freedom of Speech

The right to freedom of speech, freedom of expression and academic freedom in higher education institutions is enshrined in law. The Education (No 2) Act 1986 places a statutory duty on the higher education sector to uphold freedom of speech in their institutions as far as is practical within the law. Freedom of speech is therefore not an absolute right, and must be exercised within the limits set by the law.

Duty of Care for the Welfare of Staff and Students

Higher education institutions also have a duty of care for the welfare of their staff and students, which includes the responsibility to protect vulnerable members from radicalisation. The role of the higher education sector in preventing extremism on its campuses and its other premises has come under scrutiny following the involvement of a number of ex-students of UK universities in incidents of terrorist activity. This has also led to increased debate about the need to balance the right to freedom of speech with tackling extremism.

Prevent Duty

In 2011, the Coalition Government issued its Prevent strategy, which identified education as a priority area with regards to tackling radicalism. Prevent was placed on a statutory footing by the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015. It required certain bodies, including higher education institutions, to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. This obligation is now referred to as the ‘Prevent duty’. It also provided the Secretary of State responsible with the power to issue guidance to which the specified bodies would have to regard when fulfilling their duties.

The Prevent guidance relevant to higher education institutions was published in July 2015. The guidance was approved by Parliament, and the duty for the higher education sector commenced in September 2015. The guidance document included instructions on conducting risk assessments, Prevent awareness training for staff, and monitoring student behaviour. The document also contained guidelines on external speakers and events, providing guidance on when people or groups should be banned from speaking on campuses, while upholding the legal duty to protect freedom of speech. 

The Secretary of State also has the power under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 to enforce the performance of the Prevent duty in situations where authorities have failed to do so.

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