Last Friday (22 November 2013) Universities UK, the representative organisation for the UK’s universities, published guidance to assist universities in managing controversial external speaker events on campus. This is a complex area involving a wide range of legislation from equalities law through to criminal law and the duty to protect the safety of university staff, students and visitors.
Universities are autonomous institutions and will make decisions on each individual event independently. The guidance was published to help universities navigate their legal obligations and their practical application.
Since its publication, there has been some public debate on a small component of the guidance: a hypothetical case study (p.27) in which an external speaker on faith in the modern world requests that the audience is segregated according to gender. The case study reflects the challenges of accommodating everyone’s views, from those whose religious beliefs require them to sit separately with their own gender, to those who wish to sit with the opposite gender – hence the mixed seating alternative which is part of the solution in this case study. The issue is how to ensure that no one is unlawfully excluded from the event.
Much of the discussion has reduced our practical advice on what is a highly complex issue to a debate about the rights or wrongs of gender segregation. The guidance is not about the rights or wrongs of segregating an event by gender. Instead, it highlights the legal and other factors that universities must consider if they are addressing the particular circumstances outlined in this case study. The guidance does not promote gender segregation.
Universities have a vital role to play in securing free speech and promoting debate. This practical guidance has been developed to ensure that as many debates as possible on sensitive and emotive issues can continue to take place. By promoting free speech and open debate the rights or wrongs of gender segregation can be challenged and discussed.