University freedom of speech

April 29th, 2016

In R ota Ben-dor v University of Southampton [2016] EWHC 953, a judgment handed down earlier this week, the Administrative Court dismissed a challenge that the University had breached s 43 of the Education (No 2) Act 1986 and Arts 10 and 11 of the ECHR in barring a conference entitled “International Law and State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism” unless the organisers paid for the added security arrangements needed to meet assessed risks of disturbance to which the conference might give rise.

S 43 provides:-

43.— Freedom of speech in universities, polytechnics and colleges.

(1) Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any establishment to which this section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers.

Under s 43(3), the University had to have a code for facilitating the exercise of the s 43(1) duty.

Art 10 concerns freedom of expression, and Art 11 freedom of assembly and association.  Neither are absolute rights, but the Supreme Court in R ota Lord Carlile of Berriew v SSHD [2014] 3 WLR 1404 unsurprisingly said that freedom of expression was an essential foundation of democracy.

The judge dismissed the claim.  The University had relied on evidence-based risk assessments, both internal and from the police, which had warned of a real risk of disturbances.  It had not barred the conference absolutely.  It had followed its s 43(3) code. In short it had acted proportionately in the interference of rights of freedom of speech and assembly.

Peter Oldham QC

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