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Let us balance free speech with respect for diversity

31 October 2006

Universities have a duty to safeguard the right to freedom of expression while embracing diversity and difference. Bristol should be at the vanguard of this approach, argues Professor Eric Thomas.

There are rumours that vice-chancellors are shortly to receive guidance from the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) on dealing with extremism on campus. The rumours imply that we will be asked to undertake surveillance of our students in some unspecified way.

So far I have received nothing from the DfES and one hopes that no minister would try directly to command an autonomous institution. However, this rumour, combined with the tone of recent public discussions about the wearing of veils and crucifixes, has caused me concern that our country may be moving away from its long tradition of tolerance.

Universities are places where free speech is not only valued but also actively promoted. We want our staff and students to question currently held opinions – that is how new truths are determined and is a critical part of how our society evolves politically, socially and culturally. Difference is essential, which is one of the main reasons why we welcome students from overseas. Almost any attempt to moderate or control freedom of speech would drive a stake into the very heart of our purpose. This University has publicly stated that truth, diversity and equity are among its values. We will continue to defend those values.

As chief executive of the University and as a citizen, I have a duty to report to the relevant authorities activity that I consider illegal. Universities UK (the umbrella body representing UK universities) published an excellent document entitled Promoting Good Campus Relations in November 2005. The steering group that wrote this report included student and union representatives. In it they point out that “the law protects the rights of staff and students to engage freely in the expression, development and debate of diverse ideas and views”. The document provides general guidance and gives specific examples of actions that can be taken in particular situations to ensure that a university safeguards free speech while also fulfilling its duties to society. We will be basing our approach on that document.

In summary, I want everyone on campus to be assured that the University fully supports the right to freedom of expression and that it will robustly defend that right as long as such expression is legal. More importantly at this difficult time in the UK and globally, I would ask every member of the University to ensure that their words and actions demonstrate that they explicitly embrace diversity and difference. The UK has spent centuries becoming one of the world’s most tolerant societies. If lost, such tolerance would not be easy to recover. Universities have a vital role to play in sustaining it.

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