A recently published report on freedom of speech in campuses by Universities UK has advised universities to “engage, not marginalise” with extreme or offensive speakers, asserting: “unless views can be expressed they cannot also be challenged.”
The report was commissioned in the aftermath of the attempted bombing of a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit by former UCL student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day 2009.
Although Abdulmutallab was closely involved with his university’s Islamic Society, the report found no evidence of this having an impact on his radicalisation.
Professor Malcolm Grant, chairman of the review panel asserted: “The survey findings confirm how seriously universities take their responsibilities in relation to the safety and security of their staff and students, alongside their obligations to protect and promote free speech and academic freedom.”
He added: “Universities are open institutions where academic freedom and freedom of speech are fundamental to their functioning.”
While he acknowledged “all freedoms have limits imposed by law and these considerations are vital to ensure the safety and well being of students, staff and the wider community”, he warned against “additional censorship, surveillance or invasion of privacy”.
Safian Younas, President of the University of Cambridge Islamic Society (ISoc) found it “pleasing to note that the report recognises the importance of universities in allowing academic freedom and enabling free speech by fomenting debate and discussion.”
“It is our hope that British university campuses will remain fertile grounds for vigorous discussion and critical thinking, in spite of attempts by a minority who seek to fear monger and censor legitimate debate.”
He argued the issue of radicalisation on campuses and the wider issue of extremism in the Muslim community have been “over-represented by media outlets.”
“That’s not to hush away a problem that does exist to an extent, but just to put it in its rightful context and proportion.
It would be naive to suggest that simply because some convicted terrorists attended university (and were members of student religious societies) there is a causal relationship between the two.”
Sophie Hollow, Press Officer of the Cambridge Union Society, said: “Freedom of speech is an essential part of what the Union stands for, and we approach a wide range of important and difficult issues, but we expect our speakers to respect the law, the audience and each other.”
“The President in the Chair has the right and the responsibility to intervene if he or she feels that the speaker is being inappropriate.”
Judith Welikala – Deputy News Editor
Image: Steve Cadman