One would have thought that UK universities would hold fast to principles of equality, and reject the notion that “separate but equal” can ever be truly equal, and thus reject the idea that seating arrangements at university events be segregated by sex.
But Universities UK, the umbrella body for UK universities, is willing to compromise this principle in a misguided attempt to — bizarrely — promote freedom of speech. This is so utterly wrong-headed that it needs rebutting. Thankfully many people have already done so, but being a professor at a university that UUK supposedly represents I’m joining in.
The UUK advice is wrong, wrong morally and wrong on the legalities and wrong about what “freedom of speech” entails.
They consider a “case study” in which a speaker is invited to speak at a university event, where that speaker, for religion reasons, asks that the audience be segregated by sex. The guidance points to the legal requirement on UK universities (Education Act 1986, Section 43) that they “take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech [is] secured for … visiting speakers”. It then argues that “imposing unsegregated seating” that “contravenes the genuinely held religious beliefs” of the speaker could mean that the “freedom of speech” of the speaker is thereby “curtailed unlawfully”.
What utter tosh. Freedom of speech is a freedom to speak; it is not a right to impose ones requirements on the audience! If a speaker declines to speak owing to a dislike of the seating arrangements then that is nothing more than the speaker choosing not to speak. The speaker is not in any way being preventing from speaking; the decision not to speak comes from his own choice to comply with his own religious requirements [I am using “he” for the speaker for obvious reasons here]. Provided that the arrangements for the event are reasonable and normal by UK standards there is no violation of freedom of speech.
If an external speaker requested that the audience be racially segregated, or that every campus tree be festooned with decorations in honour of his visit, or that the Vice Chancellor must streak naked through the campus otherwise he would refuse to speak, then no-one in their right mind — not even Universities UK — would argue that declining such requests infringes the speaker’s right to free speech.
Having said that, one needs to be careful about the argument that someone “excludes themselves owing to their own religious beliefs”. Some have argued that, for example, a requirement by Scouting organisations that Scouts must swear a “duty to God” is not discriminatory, since children not complying are simply choosing to exclude themselves.
The difference here is intent. The “duty to God” oath has an express purpose to promote religion and limit membership to religious believers. Prohibiting segregation by sex is not done with the aim of excluding anyone, it is not done in the hope that certain speakers will then keep away, it is done for the strong secular purpose of ensuring equality and promoting inclusiveness.
If the university were actively trying to discourage certain speakers, by deliberately altering events to make them unwelcoming (for example by insisting that pork meat and alcohol must be served at the event), then the university would be at fault and would be failing in its duty to promote free speech. But the university is fully entitled — indeed obligated — to impose accepted standards and values, including the full equality of women and the rejection of segregation.
Failing to stand on that moral principle, and issuing weasely and craven “guidance” about accommodating those who don’t accept women’s equality, is where Universities UK has gone wrong. Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Religion are vital principles, but they should be properly interpreted. They do not entail a right to impose on others, or to require others to compromise their own rights.
Update 12th Dec 2013: The UUK have withdrawn the “case study” suggesting segregated seating. Their website now says:
“***Please note that we are working with our lawyers and the EHRC to clarify the position on case study 2. Meanwhile the case study has been withdrawn from the guidance pending the outcome of this review.***