Success! Human Rights Committee publishes comprehensive guidance on protecting free speech in universities

27 March, 2018

A big success for Humanist Students

Humanists UK has secured comprehensive new guidance on protecting free speech at universities from parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights. The need for new guidance to prevent the erosion of free speech on campuses formed the basis of a submission from Humanists UK and its student-led section Humanist Students to the Committee’s free speech inquiry last December. Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson also proposed the introduction of such guidance to the inquiry at a session in parliament last year.

In 2017, an inquiry from the Joint Committee on Human Rights examined whether freedom of speech in universities was being illegitimately limited by universities or student unions. The inquiry found that there are a number of factors limiting free speech including intolerant attitudes, leading to unions incorrectly using ‘no platforming’ policies, incidents of intimidation by protesters, student unions being unclear or over-cautious about allowing free speech that might cause offence, and confusion regarding the extent of the ‘Prevent duty’ relating to counter-terrorism. The report features 14 separate references to Humanists UK’s, Humanist Students’s, and Faith to Faithless’s submissions and to Andrew Copson’s oral evidence.

Since 2011, Humanist Students societies have experienced repeated incidents of censorship from overzealous student unions citing misplaced concerns about causing offence. It is hoped that the new guidance will help promote a fairer environment for students to organise events and to debate and challenge new ideas, offering students who critique religions stronger protections on campus.

Humanists UK Chief Executive Andrew Copson, who gave oral evidence to the Committee in its inquiry, commented, ‘We are delighted that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has published comprehensive guidance to address the creep of censorship and intolerance in our universities. We believe that this will go a long way in preventing the illegitimate shutting down of debate and activities on campus which has affected many universities in recent years, including several Humanist Students societies.

‘Although it does not address specifically the right to freely critique religious beliefs, it will be a useful document for decision-makers in universities and student unions in understanding both the importance of free speech and the very limited instances where it can be legitimately curtailed.’

Humanist Students President Hannah Timson commented, ‘In a series of incidents since 2011, Humanist Students societies have seen their free speech curtailed on campus, and as a result we have been calling for seven years now for guidance on the matter. Free speech is essential to protect the vulnerable, including the minorities within minorities, who find their views silenced or branded offensive because they disagree with the dominant narrative. The production of guidance was a call that Andrew Copson repeated during his oral evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and we are delighted that the Committee has finally heeded that call and acted accordingly.’


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson on or 020 3675 0959.

Read the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ guide:

Read more about our campaign work on free speech and expression:

Read more about Humanist Students:

Humanist Students is the student section of Humanists UK, the national charity representing the non-religious. At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have.

Humanists UK recently changed its name from the British Humanist Association: