UK Lawyers for Israel has accused Bristol University of failing to ensure freedom of speech, appeasing those who seek to disrupt meetings, and imposing unreasonable conditions on a speaker. This follows Bristol University’s cancellation of the meeting of the Free Speech Society with Emma Fox, that was due to be held on 25 March 2019.
Emma Fox, Henry Jackson Society
Emma Fox, a research fellow employed by the Henry Jackson Society, was due to talk about extreme speakers. She is the author of a “university extreme speakers’ league table”, in which Bristol was placed tenth. The Islamic Society and other student groups threatened to protest outside the event. The University then cancelled the event and insisted that it would only be re-scheduled if an “experienced opposing speaker” was found to speak alongside her.
UKLFI has written to Bristol University’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Hugh Brady, to say that it is extremely concerned that the meeting was cancelled and that unacceptable conditions have been proposed for the rearranged meeting.
UKLFI suspects that the University has breached section 43 of the 1986 Education Act by failing to take such steps as were reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech was secured. Jonathan Turner, chief executive of UKLFI said: “We recognise that in rare circumstances the cancellation of a meeting may be necessitated by the late emergence of a serious security threat which was not anticipated, could not reasonably have been anticipated, and cannot be addressed in the time available. However, we are sceptical as to whether all of these conditions really existed in this case.” UKLFI has asked Bristol University to provide the risk assessments relating to the meeting.
The University has apparently stated that if the meeting is re-arranged it will require an independent chair and an opposing speaker to Ms Fox. Jonathan Turner said: “There is no justification for these conditions. There is no basis for supposing that Ms Fox would encourage the audience to commit terrorist acts or draw them into terrorism. Furthermore these conditions are not even effective to address any feared security threat, since neither an independent chair nor an opposing speaker would prevent disruption by those determined to suppress freedom of speech for this speaker. The arrangements required are proper security and deterrence of disruption by the University making it clear that serious sanctions will be imposed on any student who participates or incites disruption.”
UKLFI say that these conditions are an attempt to appease those who threatened to disrupt the meeting and to intimidate those who wished to hear the speaker. Turner explained: “Based on our experience, such appeasement will encourage further disruption and intimidation, leading to further interference with freedom of expression. In our view, the imposition of these conditions constitutes both a direct breach of section 43 of the 1986 Act and is liable to result in further breaches of this obligation in relation to other meetings.”
UKLFI also pointed out that the imposition of these conditions on this speaker appears to violate Section 22 of the 1994 Education Act, since similar conditions have not been imposed even on quite radical Islamist speakers addressing other student societies at Bristol University. Section 22(2)(i) of that Act requires universities to take such steps as are reasonably practicable to secure that the procedure for allocating resources to groups or clubs is fair.
UKLFI has asked the university to withdraw these conditions and, instead, to inform all students that any attempt to disrupt a meeting addressed by Ms Fox or to intimidate those attending will be regarded as serious misconduct for which appropriate sanctions will be imposed.