The Charity Commission Responds to Free Speech on Campus Concerns

16 May 2018

We reported on May 4, 2018, how Universities Minister, Sam Gyimah MP, had demanded that further action be taken to protect lawful free speech on university campuses, and had offered to work with the sector to create new guidelines for both students and higher education institutions.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) report into Freedom of speech in Universities, which was published on 27th March 2018, had been critical of the Charity Commission, the regulator of charities in England and Wales, with regards to free speech in student unions:

"The Charity Commission’s approach to regulating free speech in student unions is problematic. The Commission’s guidance is not easy to use, is in places unduly restrictive, could deter speech which is not unlawful and does not take adequate account of the importance of debate in a university setting."

This week has seen the Charity Commission publish its response to these criticisms.

Responding to the comments in the JCHR report, Helen Stephenson, Chief Executive of the Charity Commission said:

"I am absolutely clear that charitable students’ unions, universities and other higher education providers can challenge traditional boundaries, encourage the free exchange of views and host speakers with a range of opinions, including those who might be controversial or divide opinion.

These activities are entirely in line with their aims to promote education. Our role as regulator is to provide guidance that enables trustees of all charities to carry out their activities while complying with their legal duties and responsibilities as charities and where necessary hold trustees to account against that guidance."

The full 9-page response (PDF) sets out the Commission’s response to the concerns expressed, as well as outlining their role as regulator of students’ unions and Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). It stresses that students’ unions and HEIs play an important role in providing discussion and debate, encouraging students to develop political awareness, to debate, to challenge their own views and perceptions and to form views on political issues.

The Commission says it agrees that freedom of speech should form part of students’ unions’ and HEIs’ activities in carrying out their educational charitable purposes. The regulator says that, as the Joint Committee has acknowledged, freedom of speech is not absolute and must be within the limits of the law.

Ahead of the JCHR’s report, the regulator had already committed to reviewing its internal staff guidance on students’ unions (OG48) to ensure it sufficiently reflects relevant aspects of freedom of speech when students’ unions carry out activities, and ensure a clearer distinction is made between the responsibilities of the trustees, students’ union bodies, student societies and the broader membership.

You can read the reports from the Joint Committee on Human Rights online here:

Freedom of Speech in Universities (PDF - Opens in new window)

Free speech: guidance for universities and students organising events (PDF - Opens in new window)

As well as, the Charity Commission response here and their current internal staff guidance on students’ unions (OG48) here.


Stuart Brown
Media and Content Manager

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