Letter to Sheffield University Student Union about the free speech society

In February, a group of students at Sheffield University tried to set up a free speech society and were initially told they couldn’t by the Students’ Union. The students appealed and won, but have now been told their society is a “red risk”. That means they must attend “risk assessment” training and cannot invite any speakers on to campus without first having to submit a list of prospective speakers to the Students’ Union three weeks ahead of time for “full and final approval”. (One of the co-founders of the society, Ewan Somerville, has written about the difficulties he and his colleagues have faced in the Telegraph.) The students are now worried that if they invite anyone controversial to speak, the Students’ Union will withhold permission. Two of them reached out to the Free Speech Union for help and, with the aid of the Legal Advisory Council, I’ve written to the President of the Students’ Union, copying in the Vice-Chancellor, reminding him that both the Students’ Union and the University have a legal duty to uphold freedom of expression and asking him to reassure me that he won’t withhold approval from any speaker the society proposes to invite except in truly exceptional circumstances and when legally permitted to do so.


Letter of Complaint to De Montfort University About Breaching the Speech Rights of an FSU Member

A journalism student at De Montfort University and a member of the FSU alerted us to the fact that he was being formally investigated for bringing the University into disrepute after a left-wing activist made a complaint about him. He had got into an argument with this activist on Twitter over the prosecution of Daniel Thomas, a colleague of Tommy Robinson’s, for identifying the victim of a sexual offence. The student wasn’t defending Thomas’s behaviour, merely objecting to the fact that the left-wing activist was revelling in his prosecution, as if Thomas were a bigger criminal than members of grooming gangs convicted of sexual offences. Nothing the student tweeted in the course of this exchange was unlawful, nor was it in breach of any of Twitter’s rules. But following the activist’s complaint, the student’s department at De Montfort University decided to launch a formal investigation and, in short order, found him guilty and threatened him with expulsion from the University if he repeated the offence. This is a clear breach of the student’s right to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, as well as being contrary to the University’s own free speech policies and inconsistent with its legal duty to uphold free speech under s.43 of Education (Nº 2) Act 1986. The FSU was minded to mount a legal challenge immediately, but was dissuaded from doing so by the student. Instead, we have written to the investigating official and pointed out that De Montfort University’s behaviour is contrary to the law protecting freedom of speech, asked him to explain himself, and warned him that we will legally challenge any further sanctions that are imposed on our member. For a university to punish a journalism student for exercising his lawful right to free speech really is a scandal.