SOAS University of London

SOAS scholar at Joint Committee on Human Rights discussing freedom of speech at universities

27 March 2018

The JCHR today published their final report on freedom of speech in universities, citing Professor Alison Scott-Baumann and Simon Perfect’s research.

Alison Scott-Baumann, Professor of Society and Belief at SOAS University of London and Project Leader, of the AHRC funded Re/presenting Islam on Campus Project gave evidence at the Joint Committee on Human Rights on free speech and the importance of strengthening interfaith work on campus.

In discussing her research into the government’s anti-extremism programme Prevent, Professor Scott-Baumann said free speech enables students to “actually get to grips with the world they have inherited from us”. She also discussed the ways universities are well placed to combat extremism through informed discussion and debate.

Professor Scott-Baumann said: “If we must deal with extremist ideas, universities would be an excellent place to do it. In other words if we were to enhance the exposure of students to Islamic issues then one could argue that is going to educate them and immunise and inoculate them against the ideas about which society is concerned.

“[During]three months’ worth of research, we worked with four universities and two Muslim colleges… about 280 staff and students [and] over 50% were Muslim… about a quarter expressed opposition to Prevent because they said it stifled dissent and also stifles discussion and deters students from activism, targets Muslims and is counterproductive.

“If we are considering the university campus as a place where it should be possible to look at difficult ideas to deal with radicalisation – whatever that means – then in the view of our nearly 300 respondents this is not happening on campus. This is an opportunity missed. This is relevant to any belief system which is racist or discriminatory. The potential for universities to deal with these issues is definitely there but it is being chilled.”

The SOAS scholar also noted the importance of strengthening interfaith issues on campus:

“What students are asking for now is that they should understand these world events… they should understand what motivates Daesh – they want to talk about it. The restraints on them are that if they choose this as a topic for their dissertation they may be told this is not an acceptable topic to choose in case they become radicalised.

“If we were able to work with the Office for Students – the university sector – to consider what a model of free speech might look like, that would work better than what we have at the moment. How do you get hot headed students together in one room who have opposed views – help them to talk to each other – help them to mount a debate and invite speakers in. If we can reintroduce something that we’ve had since the beginning of time in civilisation – the ability to discuss and to draw conclusions about where this middle ground is. We tend to think in binaries – we have extremes at one end and the other – in the middle there is always something that both parties can agree upon that will lead to students actually getting to grips with the world they have inherited from us.”

Alongside her team’s unique research on Islam on campus, Professor Scott-Baumann also conducted ground breaking research with Simon Perfect, also of SOAS, on the Charity Commission. They found that the Charity Commission can have a chilling effect on free speech by instructing students’ unions that they must be apolitical and discouraging them from hosting controversial external speakers, because they are also charities. As a direct result of receiving this evidence, the JCHR decided to call the Charity Commission to give evidence and the JCHR was openly critical of the Charity Commission’s actions on campus. As a result of the JCHR following up on SOAS research, the new Universities Minister Sam Gyimah, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, both made unsolicited statements that the Charity Commission is having a restrictive effect upon free speech on campus.

The JCHR’s final report on freedom of speech in universities discusses Professor Scott-Baumann and Mr Perfect’s work and makes recommendations concerning the Prevent duty and the Charity Commission’s regulation of students’ unions.

Professor Scott-Baumann and Mr Perfect are also advising the Equality and Human Rights Commission in their investigation of these issues and will continue to make a difference that may affect policy.