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Freedom of expression

The following statement on Freedom of Expression has been discussed and approved by UEG (University Executive Group). It is intended to provide some guidance for staff and students about the nature of academic discourse when controversial topics are discussed.

This version of the Freedom of Expression (6 July 23) includes feedback from the wider EDIC and SHSL

Freedom of Expression

A University is a place of debate. It provides an environment for the free exchange of ideas and for the questioning and exploration of those ideas in the pursuit of truth and knowledge.  Sometimes ideas can seem shocking, and long-held views can feel under threat; but this is an essential part of academic discourse, refining hypotheses and deepening understanding.  Universities also play an important role in contributing to wider public debates, sharing the results of the research and expertise of their academics for the benefit of wider society.

Members of a University community must regularly expect to confront difficult and controversial topics or views, expound their own ideas, and engage with disagreement and dissent. Sometimes ideas will align with our own views, sometimes they may seem objectionable or disagreeable, but to challenge others’ views and be open to challenge of one’s own views is a fundamental part of what it means to belong to an academic community.  Students are as much a part of this community as academics, teachers, researchers and professional services staff.

Staff and students must recognise that such debates are an important part of education, and everyone is expected to engage inclusively, civilly and peacefully, recognising that this can be uncomfortable for some but understanding that by tackling divisive issues, we can achieve great things and push the frontiers of knowledge. However, just because the University promotes freedom of expression does not mean that members of the community must tolerate abuse, threats, hatred, discrimination or violence or any other unlawful acts.  By the same token, the holding of an unpopular viewpoint does not by itself necessarily represent abuse, hatred or discrimination.  

Freedom of expression brings with it a responsibility to consider both the means by which and the environment within which ideas and opinions are raised.  Being sensitive to one’s audience and thinking about how opinions and questions are phrased are extremely important if we are to initiate discussions sympathetically and inclusively.  The very acts of raising a question or voicing an opinion can themselves feel hostile in some situations, so we need to be fully aware of that and take active steps to reduce the opportunity for offence.  

When we disagree with points of view, we sometimes feel the need to protest openly about them.  This, too, is a form of freedom of expression.  But protests can be intimidating, and so we should consider how we can protest in ways that encourage debate and reduce the risk of making members of our community feel unsafe or vulnerable.  

In Universities, the term academic freedom is also used to protect the rights of members of staff engaged in teaching, learning and research to exercise intellectual independence as well as to express themselves freely.  Ordinance 59 of the University’s Ordinances sets out the University’s commitment to protecting academic freedom, as well as explaining how staff can make representation in the event that they believe their academic freedom has been adversely affected.  In accordance with the Higher Education Governance (Scotland) Act 2016, the University defines academic freedom in the following terms:

Academic freedom […] is the freedom to hold and express opinions, question and test established ideas or received wisdom, develop and advance new ideas or innovative proposals, and present controversial or unpopular points of view, without placing oneself in jeopardy of losing one’s job, entitlements or privileges, provided always that such freedom is exercised lawfully and respects the academic freedom of others. [Ordinance 59, §1]

The University encourages all within its community to reflect on the principles of free expression set out here so that together we can fulfil our mission to transform lives by creating researchers, teachers, students and graduates who are respectful of others when expressing their views, accept others’ rights to freedom of expression within the law, and are confident and resilient enough to engage with difficult topics.

Updated on 08/09/2023

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