The Charity Commission, the regulator of charities in England and Wales, has today published its response to the Joint Committee on Human Rights report into Freedom of speech in Universities.
Helen Stephenson, chief executive of the Charity Commission said:
I am absolutely clear that charitable students’ unions, universities and other higher education providers can challenge traditional boundaries, encourage the free exchange of views and host speakers with a range of opinions, including those who might be controversial or divide opinion.
These activities are entirely in line with their aims to promote education. Our role as regulator is to provide guidance that enables trustees of all charities carry out their activities while complying with their legal duties and responsibilities as charities and where necessary hold trustees to account against that guidance.
The response sets out the Commission’s role as regulator of students’ unions and Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). It stresses that students’ unions and HEIs play an important role in providing discussion and debate, encouraging students to develop political awareness, to debate, to challenge their own views and perceptions and to form views on political issues.
The Commission says it agrees that freedom of speech should form part of students’ unions’ and HEIs’ activities in carrying out their educational charitable purposes. The regulator says that, as the Joint Committee has acknowledged, freedom of speech is not absolute and must be within the limits of the law.
The Commission says its guidance is an important tool for explaining its regulatory approach to all charities, and is written to enable and support all charities to recognise and manage the risks that arise from some activities that may present higher risks in order to support them to go ahead.
Ahead of the JCHR’s report, the regulator had already committed to reviewing two of its publications:
chapter 5 of its guidance ‘Protecting your charity from harm’ to make sure it sufficiently stresses what charities can do, to support trustees to recognise, and then to manage and mitigate, risks to their charities.
its internal staff guidance on students’ unions (OG48) to ensure it sufficiently reflects relevant aspects of freedom of speech when students’ unions carry out activities, and ensure a clearer distinction is made between the responsibilities of the trustees, students’ union bodies, student societies and the broader membership.