Staff news

Freedom of Expression and recent events

A statement from Principal and Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Mathieson and Provost Professor Kim Graham on freedom of expression and recent events.

In recent weeks, questions have been raised about the University’s commitment to freedom of speech and how controversial topics should best be discussed within our community.

What these questions have highlighted is the importance of both freedom of expression and related rights such as freedom of assembly and academic freedom, which our institution has always held dear, and our commitment to a culture of inclusion.

Universities are places for enquiry, new ideas and opinions. Since our inception in 1583, our University has championed freedom of thought, robust debate and the right to discuss and challenge new concepts and theories, as well as those that are long established.

Without the guarantee of freedom of expression, within the bounds of law, and the broader freedom of inquiry this protects, the University’s vital contribution to new forms of knowledge and understanding would be unacceptably compromised.

As a community devoted to learning and the pursuit of knowledge, we can also play an important role in deepening understanding of challenging issues and it is essential that we provide a safe place for critical enquiry and reflection.

Of course, the University has other legal duties we must meet, including those in relation to equality, the obligation to protect the health and safety of staff, students and visitors and to have regard to the prevention of individuals being drawn into terrorism. Our published statement on Academic Freedom and Freedom of Expression clearly outlines how, in balancing these responsibilities, we always operate with a strong presumption that any restrictions in relation to freedom of expression must be exceptional. 

The University is required to take a neutral position on the topics that are discussed on our campuses, and we would not seek to influence the course of such debate. The decision to allow an event or discussion to proceed is made in line with our policies and is not an endorsement by the University of any of the particular views expressed therein.

In most circumstances, it is for individual members of our community rather than the University itself to judge whether ideas that are put forth are open to challenge. We expect people to act on these judgments not by seeking to suppress free and lawful speech with which they personally disagree, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose.

In allowing space for competing viewpoints, we endeavour to provide a forum where difficult debates can be had, and indeed encouraged. This includes upholding the right of people to exercise their freedom of expression and assembly by taking part in peaceful and lawful protest. We have processes in place to support members of our community in organising challenging events and ensure appropriate measures are taken to allow these to proceed safely.

Our University Security team will always approach such events and planned on-campus protests with safety as paramount. We ask that organisers of events which are likely to elicit a strong reaction in our community contact the Security team in advance so that we can provide the appropriate level of support. In some circumstances, we may require to seek additional support from external providers to facilitate this. Supporting our community in this way is an important part of the role of our Security team, as well as promoting a safe community environment overall.

Of course, our campuses are also an integral part of the city and, on occasion, the Police may respond to matters as they see appropriate. We have a good relationship with the Police and we will continue to work with them on ensuring a community support presence for events, but their protocols are not within the purview of the University and its staff.

We are clear that we will not tolerate obstructive behaviour that seeks to prevent others from exercising their own legal rights – including the right to freedom of expression – or any behaviour that does not abide by our Dignity and Respect policy.

We also understand that the right to freedom of expression and the exercise of academic freedom does not mean that individuals can say whatever they wish – these rights operate within the bounds of law. Accordingly, we do not tolerate discrimination, incitement, bullying or harassment on our campus. We have robust processes in place, that are both fair and rigorous, for dealing with any complaints of this nature.

In a community of our size, however, it is inevitable that members of our community will sometimes hear views and ideas that they disagree with or find offensive – perhaps deeply so. We have a duty to ensure that we provide and uphold an environment where tolerance and respect is preserved, and we have pastoral care in place, as well as formal wellbeing support systems, for anyone affected by conversations taking place on our campuses.

In challenging times such as this, it is vital that we show compassion for each other and acknowledge when our views may be upsetting to others, and adjust our behaviour accordingly. If we can do that, we may learn to understand the views of others a little better, avoid deepening divisions, and make meaningful progress on the debates that shape our society.

Academic freedom and freedom of expression