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Freedom of Speech - A statement by the Chair of the University's Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Group

27 February 2018

The University of Bristol is re-affirming its commitment to freedom of speech and to the rights of all our students and staff to discuss difficult and sensitive topics, and to being a place where all feel safe, welcomed and respected, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, disability or social background.

The University has been made aware of the controversy surrounding a recent meeting in Bristol, organised by the group known as “A Woman’s Place” and chaired by one of our students. The stated purpose of the event was to discuss the implications of proposed changes in the law which would mean a person’s gender could be determined by self-identification alone, and concerns about what this might mean for single sex environments such as social and sports facilities, hospital wards, changing rooms and toilets.   

An open letter was posted on social media calling for the event to be banned, on the basis that the discussion would be founded on hatred and distrust of transgender people. Some 200 people are believed to have signed up to this letter, including some of our students and staff. There were many related comments on social media, some of these describing the event - and anyone involved in its organisation - as by definition transphobic with some using abusive and intimidating language. We understand that in the end the event took place without incident. 

While this event was not affiliated with or hosted by the University, it presents an opportune time to affirm our commitment to freedom of speech and to the rights of all our students and staff to discuss difficult and sensitive topics.  Universities are places of research and learning, where debate and dissent are not only permitted but expected, and where controversial and even offensive ideas may be put forward, listened to and challenged.  Intellectual freedom is fundamental to our mission and values. Our freedom of speech policy underlines the vital importance of our right, as members of a free and democratic society, to speak openly without fear of censorship or limitation, provided that this right is exercised responsibly, within the law, and with respect for others who may have differing views.  We do not condone attempts to silence discussion before it has even taken place or the use of stereotyping or threatening language to prevent debate. 

We also take this opportunity to affirm our equally strong commitment to making our University a place where all feel safe, welcomed and respected, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, disability or social background.  We believe that calls for this event to be banned were largely founded on the sincere desire to show support and solidarity for transgender people in our society and in our university community.   We regret however that this desire has been expressed by some in a manner which may have caused others to fear that their own right to meet and speak freely about matters of concern to them is not protected by the University.  

Professor Nishan Canagarajah

Pro-Vice Chancellor Research & Enterprise

Chair of the University's Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Group

Further information

The following statement was issued to media on 30 May 2018 following questions about potential disciplinary action against a current student:

A University spokesperson said: ‘Concerns have been raised with us about the actions of one of our students in relation to their protesting of a talk by A Woman’s Place. This talk was not hosted by the University. A University academic chaired the event in a personal capacity, and we understand several of our students attended.’

‘We strongly defend the right of students to protest. In this instance a complaint has been made that the form of these actions may have infringed on the freedom of speech of others in our community. The University has a duty to investigate such complaints, and secure free speech in the institution within the law. We have therefore initiated Student Disciplinary Regulations proceedings relating to the form of this student’s protest.’

‘As part of these proceedings, this student has been referred to a Disciplinary Committee to allow a detailed consideration of the complex issues involved. No penalty has been imposed on any student in relation to these matters as the Disciplinary Committee has not yet been held.’

‘All matters relating to Student Disciplinary Regulations are confidential.'

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