Should controversial speakers be banned from university campuses?

The Tory and Liberal Democrat (Lib Dem) political parties, who comprise the current British governing coalition, are sparring over the implementation of new laws that oblige institutions to prevent radicalization. A Tory coalition is pushing guidelines that would ban any ‘extremist’ speaker from appearing on university campuses in England, igniting a debate about freedom of expression in institutions of higher learning.

The Lib Dems hold that the proposed Tory ban is too vague about what qualities would constitute an ‘extremist’ speaker. Universities, they argued, should have the opportunity to decide for themselves whether or not a speaker poses a danger to its students, and should have the opportunity to confront these individuals in well-argued debate if they choose.

The Guardian and the BBC both reported over the weekend about the dispute, which arose as the Parliament discussed the wording of guidelines to be issued to universities on the heels of the new legislation.

The new university guidelines are being given particular attention after allegations surfaced that the British foreign fighter and Islamic State militant Mohammed Emwazi, also known as ‘Jihadi John’, became radicalized as a student at Westminster University in London. This revelation has sparked fears regarding the potential influence that  ‘extremist’ speakers may exert on impressionable students.

Policy makers should note the distinction between controversial speech and hate speech. Hate speech is not protected under international law, and students at universities should be defended against it. International instruments such as article 20 of the ICCPR and article 4 of CERD ban hate speech, defined as ‘advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence’.

Any policy banning public speech related to specific issues should be closely aligned with international standards. That includes providing adequately clear criteria regarding what specific acts are not permitted.

Article 19(3) of the ICCPR defines the scope of permissible limitations on freedom of expression. Like all freedoms, this right requires a certain amount of responsibility on the part of the rights-holder to exercise it with judgement. Therefore, freedom of expression may be restricted if that restriction is allowed for by law, is enacted to achieve a legitimate aim, and is necessary in a democratic society to protect the rights or reputation of others or to preserve public order.

In a 2008 report, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression Ambeyi Ligabo wrote that freedom of expression, ‘symbolizes, more than any other right, the indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights. As such, the effective enjoyment of this right is an important indicator with respect to the protection of other human rights and fundamental freedoms.’

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right through which other rights are claimed, and as such, states should exercise extreme caution when imposing limits on it. The free exchange of information and ideas provides a foundation that is necessary for democracy and should be a cornerstone of any responsible university education. A policy that would promote the outright banning of controversial speakers, who might be more effectively combated through open discourse, robs students of the opportunity to think critically and to learn how to argue against dangerous rhetoric themselves. While hate speech should be curbed, freedom of expression on university campuses should be protected as an essential element on the path to becoming educated citizens.

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