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Student unions at risk of breaching free speech laws

New guidelines posted today by the Government state that student unions that prevent giving certain speakers a platform could be at risk of breaching the free speech laws.

The warning was published in a report by the Government alongside the Equalities and Human Rights Commission after a number of events across UK universities have ended up in the press after being cancelled last minute or refused approval by student unions in a bid to allegedly protect students.

However, some believe they are taking the censorship too far. Last year the political magazine ‘Spiked’ gave the University of Stirling a ‘red light’ for free speech – the worst out of the three colour traffic light rating system.

Ministers across the UK have become concerned by recent events. Sam Gyimah, the former universities minister, last year demanded universities put a stop to the institutional free speech-preventing practices that have become more common among university unions.

The new guidance sets out legal guidelines whilst highlighting situations where it would be appropriate to limit free speech. David Isaac, Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission has said that, “free speech should be upheld at every opportunity unless there are legitimate safety concerns”.

According to the guidelines, the student unions are still within their right to reject speakers if they disagree with their views, although they could be liable for defamation if they name certain speakers on “no platform lists”.

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credit: BBC

Despite the new guidelines applying only to England and Wales, the University of Stirling’s Student Union came under fire last year after stepping in to prevent Mark Meechan, known more commonly as Count Dankula online, from speaking at an event organised by the Libertarian Society.

The Union refused the event request after deeming Meechan to breach the  Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Policy on the grounds of Meechan’s conviction under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 after pranking his partner by training her dog to respond to anti-Semitic remarks.

Meechan’s conviction sparked debate regarding the issue of free speech after it was widely contested that he should be free of any repercussion as the video was intended as a joke, with comedian Ricky Gervais publicly jumping to his defence.

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Mark Meechan – credit: The Hollywood Reporter

The Government’s article is available to read in full here: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/free-speech-to-be-protected-at-university

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