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Free speech codes can be “too complicated”, watchdog leader says

Sir Michael Barber, chair of the new Office for Students, told the human rights committee he sees free speech as “absolutely fundamental”.

University codes on free speech can be too complicated, the head of a new watchdog has said.

While institutions do need to think about issues surrounding free speech on campus, there is a danger that rules can be too complex, according to Sir Michael Barber.

Sir Michael, chair of the new Office for Students (OfS), told MPs and Lords that he sees free speech as “absolutely fundamental”.

The human rights committee is holding an inquiry into free speech in universities.

It comes amid an ongoing debate about free speech at universities, and a number of reports of speakers, debates, literature and organisations being opposed or criticised, often by student unions, societies or particular groups of students.

Former universities minister Jo Johnson previously warned that free speech is a key part of university life, while the OfS has been tasked with ensuring that universities promote freedom of speech within the law.

At a hearing this afternoon, committee chair Harriet Harman said that universities have a legal duty to have a code of practice on free speech, and that committee members had seen examples of these, some of which involved “assessments, more advance risk assessments, notice periods, appeals, application forms, even to the extent that they need to be simplified by some quite complex organograms”.

“Isn’t all this bureaucracy around these freedom of speech policies, aren’t they actually, in effect, inhibiting freedom of speech?” she asked Sir Michael.

Ms Harman, Labour MP for Camberwell and Peckham, added: “Isn’t freedom of speech the absence of all these rules, guidance, procedures?

She went on to say: “It seems from what we’ve heard and what we’ve looked at, that actually, you’ve got the requirement to promote freedom of speech, but it’s being turned into a bureaucracy which is in fact inhibiting free speech.

Sir Michael told the committee that the OfS, the new regulator for higher education in England “will champion free speech, we won’t be complacent about it, and we will encourage boldness”.

He suggested that there are issues around the rules on free speech, such as controversial speakers, that universities need to think about.

But he said: “I do think that some of the examples of codes of practice are too complicated and too bureaucratic.

“On the other hand I don’t want to be totally simplistic.”

There are issues about the rules of debate that need decisions, he argued, adding that some universities “do a very good job of getting student union people and university administrators together to make sensible decisions on these things.”

“It’s not going to be completely simple, but I think you can over-complexify it,” Sir Michael said.

He added that he does not think that the OfS should come up with a single code of practice.

“I don’t think we want any kind of government-related agency doing single codes of practice on freedom of speech, it just feels altogether wrong,” he said.

“But if a group of university leaders with student unions got together and came up with a simplified code of practice, that might be a very good idea.”

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