Universities UK is simply wrong on segregation

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.***

6 thoughts on “Universities UK is simply wrong on segregation

  1. Duncan

    I’m slightly uncomfortable about the phrase ” [I am using “he” for the speaker for obvious reasons here]” – I’ve met several women who try to enforce segregation by sex on various activities, even if they are out-numbered by the men I’ve met. If it is a female speaker who wants a gender split audience (or indeed a female-only audience), does that make it ok?

  2. Gary Hill

    “Freedom of speech is a freedom to speak; it is not a right to impose ones requirements on the audience!”

    You’ve summed it up very cogently in this one sentence. Slippery slope arguments are often fallacious but in this case I think the fear is justified. If gender segregation becomes an accepted feature it would become far easier for say, a white supremacist speaker, to insist on racially segregated seating on the grounds that the precedent has already been made and so refusing to allow the segregation would be an affront to religious and/or personal conscience.

    I am not simply angry at the UUK but genuinely scared at where this might lead.

  3. Joe

    Hmm, a speaker from which religion would want the women segregated? A Christian? A Buddhist? A Hindu? I noticed that the words “Islam” and “Muslim” were nowhere mentioned in your article. Why not? Are you afraid?

    Also, your cartoon showed a figure with a crown of thorns, plainly linking this to Jesus. That is really rich. This is an Islamic question and you know it.

    Then the talk about freedom, standards, values, blah blah blah. Haven’t you figured out yet that this is about fear? People are frightened of the Muslims (a) because some [not all] Muslims are hard and violent people; (b) many Moslems couldn’t care less what you think of them and completely ignore your opinions; and (c) many secularists are spineless and gutless people who will ridicule and mock and harass the Christians but are frightened of the Muslims and so say nothing.

    I suggest you start learning Arabic, you are going to be needing it soon the way things are going.

    1. Coel Post author

      Hi Joe,
      Yes, this issue is about Islam. It came to prominence in the UK over Lawrence Krauss refusing to take part in a debate with an Islamic speaker at UCL where the seating was segregated.

      I’m certainly not afraid to say it’s an Islamic issue (see my previous post for example), but in this instance the Universities UK guidance was hypothetical about a hypothetical case, rather than about Islam per se. As for the JandMo cartoon, you’re right that this particular issue isn’t about Christianity. However Christians have taken a similar attitude to other equality rules, for example the recent case of Christian owners of a B&B wanting to turn away a gay couple.

      … many secularists are spineless and gutless people who will ridicule and mock and harass the Christians but are frightened of the Muslims and so say nothing.

      Yes, we get that accusation a lot. The other accusation we get a lot is that we’re all Islamophobic and are way too critical of and hostile towards Islam.

    2. Duncan

      I’ve come across segregation issues with Orthodox Jews on a plane too – specifically two men who refused to sit next to a woman they didn’t know. Not exactly what the article was about but related.

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