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Freedom of Expression at Universities

The Union of Jewish Students welcomes the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s clarifications on Universities and Students’ Unions’ duty to protect freedom of expression, whilst similarly guarding students from harassment, intimidation and religious or racial hatred. We are proud to be influencing the conversation on freedom of speech in the HE sector, given that both this EHRC report and the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ investigation into free speech on campus mirrored our written and oral evidence. We look forward to seeing implementation of these recommendations on campuses in England and Wales, including free and informed debates on Israel-Palestine, whilst protecting Jewish students from those who would incite hatred and violence against us.

Clear and precise No Platform policies continue to have a role in the fight against violent racism, fascism and other forms of discrimination. In specific instances, such as if a speaker breaks criminal law, the guidelines show that No Platform could be used.

Regarding peaceful protest, the EHRC guidelines strike an accurate and delicate balance between protecting the right to peaceful protest, and not permitting such protests to infringe on the right of speakers to be heard. Universities must take steps to ensure that speakers are not stopped from speaking. If protesters break criminal law, their rights are not protected. This is particularly pertinent in cases where protesters aim to shut down or disrupt pro-Israel speakers; in this regard, the EHRC guidance is clear that the responsibility to protect these speakers’ rights to be heard lies with universities.

Further guidance is offered on indirect discrimination, such as timetabling events to fit religious requirements when reasonably possible. SUs should bear this guidance in mind when planning freshers events during the High Holy Days, or holding events that may have relevant to Jewish students on Shabbat.

We were further interested to read guidance on the remits of Students Unions as charitable organisations. SUs must not exceed their remit of charity law requirements, and trustees must only act on political campaigns unless they directly support their charitable purpose of advancing education in the public interest. Students' Unions should consider the role of campaigns such as BDS in this regard. SU trustees must manage the risk of such campaigns to incite racial or religious hatred. Therefore, SUs have a right to debate and decide on positions on such matters, but trustees must carefully consider their duties before implementation.

Overall, UJS is satisfied with the findings of the EHRC report, many of which mirror UJS’ written submission last year. A clarification on the instances in which freedom of expression must be curtailed is welcome, and we will use this guidance to ensure the safety and wellbeing of Jewish students.


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