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, but when they applied for official recognition from the Students’ Union it was declined. The group 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 wrote to the President of the Students’ Union, Jake Verity, 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. The letter was dated 2nd April. I finally received a reply on 1st May. You can read both my letter and Jake Verity’s reply below. The reply goes part of the way to meeting our concerns, but only part of the way, so I will be writing a follow-up letter shortly.