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Revealed: Britain’s top universities do not have hate speech policies

None of Britain’s top universities have specific policies regarding students and hate speech, an investigation by Scram News has revealed.

An analysis of the top 20 British universities as ranked by the Complete University Guide has revealed that, while universities have policies pertaining to harassment, dignity at study, or regulations for student behaviour, none have a specific policy for hate speech (i.e. abuse that expresses prejudice against a particular group, especially on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation).

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Meanwhile, as dictated by law, the universities all have policies protecting free speech. 

Universities like the University of Bath, for instance, have a Dignity and Respect policy stipulating a ban on harassment, bullying and victimisation as defined by the the Equality Act, which bans harassment against protected groups. However, Bath’s policy does not mention hate speech as explicitly falling within this sphere.

Meanwhile, in February 2019, the government announced new guidance for legal rights to protect free speech on campuses, which universities have complied with – all setting out policies protecting the right.

Amid this, in 2018 the Independent reported that racist incidents on campuses had surged by 60% in two years. And, in 2016, University UK (UUK), a body that represents universities, established a taskforce to examine hate crime on campuses and make recommendations to the government. Last month, it published a follow up to this research, warning about the growth of online hate speech.

Some of the universities listed touch upon hate speech in their policies. For instance, the London School of Economics says, “harassment can occur orally” while Manchester says jokes can be classed as harassment. The University of Warwick also told Scram that their policy, “Dignity at Warwick Policy,” mentions “language that causes fear or distress to others” and therefore covers hate speech sufficiently. However, this policy, like the others, has no explicit mention of hate speech.

Other universities are more general still in their treatment of hate speech. Loughborough University has a University Ordinance which sets out rules for students. It mentions prohibiting “harassment of any kind” in a long list of rules, after other regulations like “creating an excessive noise” are covered. Nevertheless, a spokesperson from the institution said:

“The University has several policies in place to ensure that if an issue relating to hate speech arises it can be dealt with.”  

Fope Olaleye, the National Union of Student’s (NUS) Black Student’s Officer, told us that universities need clearer hate speech policies. They said:

“Universities have a responsibility towards their students, as well as academic and professional staff, to ensure that hate speech isn’t welcomed on campus. Hate speech and legally defined hate crimes are highly linked and there has been a rise of both in recent years.

“Universities should put into place effective policies, which includes transparent decision-making, targeted and culturally competent student support, and an effective complaints process.”

Where universities are succeeding in putting into place effective policies is in the protection of free speech, despite some doubting whether this is an issue on campuses at all. Announcing their recent policy to require universities to enshrine free speech through a written document, a government statement said:

“The guidance is the first time that legal rights and obligations around free speech have been defined so coherently, empowering institutions, student unions and individuals to stand up for free speech”.

But Alistair Jarvic, the CEO of Universities UK, criticised the protections. He said: “There is little evidence of a systematic problem of free speech in universities”. The NUS and the BBC have also found that claims about censorship on campuses have been exaggerated.

And so, the University of Southampton’s Student Discipline Code says students should not “breach free speech,” while hate speech is glossed over.

While all universities maintain that measures to protect free speech will not stop them from clamping down on hate, it is interesting that the government’s priority is to protect victims of censorship rather than the victims of hate crimes.

Olaleye from the NUS added: “Universities operate within statutory frameworks and must recognise their legal duties around freedom of expression and incitement of crime, the public sector equality duty, and their duty of care to their students.

“We would welcome more universities understanding and focusing resources on their processes and student support, around addressing hate speech alongside harassment and crime.”

Scram News approached both the Department of Education and the Home Office to comment on this issue.

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