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What students think about freedom of expression

Findings from focus groups at King's and the University of Melbourne

Students walking through a corridor on campus

The principles of freedom of expression and academic freedom are sometimes seen as being in tension with freedom of speech policies implemented by universities and student unions – and sometimes in tension with reaction from the student body itself. Whilst the issue is complex and often contentious, student focus groups held at King’s College London and the University of Melbourne identified potential policy solutions which could help alleviate some of these problems, focusing on a range of stakeholders ranging from governments and regulators to the student body itself. In this post, I’ll consider some of the suggestions focused specifically on university leaders and student unions.

Freedom of expression, according to the definition used by King’s College London, includes four freedoms: freedom from hate, free speech, freedom to protest and academic freedom. Given that these four freedoms are often in tension, 79% of students believe it is the university’s responsibility to balance these in order to protect freedom of expression on campus, rather than prioritise one over the rest.

According to students, one of the biggest problems in the debate is the lack of clear definitions on different principles relating to the issue. This lack of clarity can lead to confusion: is a “safe space” somewhere you feel free to express your views without being challenged or is it a place where you can be respectfully challenged? These different understandings can be conflicting and can undermine the implementation of efficient policies. Some issues have been particularly polarising: for example, 26% of students think violence can be justified to prevent hate speech or racially charged comments. However, students disagreed on what they mean by “extreme” or “unpopular views”, therefore showing diverging standards for what they deem acceptable.

Another significant issue is the misperception that the student body can be represented as one coherent voice – and often the voice that shouts the loudest. Most universities have structures in play to take the student voice into account, usually through the student union, but they aren’t always representative of the whole student body. Whilst it is highly complex to take into account all sensibilities, university leadership needs to be aware that different groups will not be affected in the same way by different issues, depending on their ethnicity, race, sexuality, political leaning, social background – or more fundamentally the degree to which they are engaged in politics and social activism.

Taking into account these challenges, students at the workshops in London and Melbourne came up with the following policy solutions for university and student union leaderships.

University leadership

Students who participated in both the London and Melbourne focus groups felt university leaders could do more to promote transparency and accountability around this issue. This involves more consultation, contact and effective and transparent communication with the student body. Part of this should also be to establish clearer and more accessible definitions for understanding freedom of expression.

It would also be beneficial to take into account other student voices which might not be represented, looking beyond the Students’ Union. University leaders could, for instance, create direct communication channels with student representatives from different degrees to encourage feedback and input on their policies from a wider range of students with differing views and opinions.

Students felt that the university leadership could also provide better training in freedom of expression for both academics and students. Academics should be encouraged to promote and respect all viewpoints in the classroom. This might mean playing devil’s advocate to allow students to develop their critical thinking and to be able to handle a variety of arguments and opinions. Students in our focus groups also felt that different viewpoints should be represented in core reading lists and that the strength of their arguments are considerably weakened when they are built on one-sided readings.

And just as students have a compulsory introduction to plagiarism when they start university, they could also attend a similar induction module on freedom of expression, which explores what it is and what their rights are.

The student union leadership

Student unions could implement more opportunities for a range of students to discuss freedom of expression. This could take a range of forms, including workshops or debates. Participants in the focus groups emphasised the importance of student union leaders ensuring this is a space where the whole student body is represented, remembering that some student voices are quieter than others.

Student unions could also create accessible versions of freedom of expression policies, removing some of the jargon of current policies, and could do more to hold the university to account on its policies regarding freedom of expression to reduce the bureaucratic burden.

Student unions could also play a role in reminding students that they should be prepared to encounter challenging views, including how to exercise tolerance and to “agree to disagree”. They could also support students to better understand how opinions are formed and be wary of disinformation.

Freedom of expression in general, and in universities in particular is an incredibly complex issue, which requires both short- and long-term policies. Taking into account the policies mentioned above will remind students that both the university and student union leadership are taking their views seriously and are willing to help them obtain the critical thinking and learning they need in order to have a positive impact on society.