THE principal of one of Scotland’s leading universities has defended so-called “safe spaces” as a former minister said campus policies “are like a machinery for restricting speech rather than promoting it”.

Professor Sir Timothy O’Shea, vice-chancellor and principal of Edinburgh University, said his institution had had to update free speech policies in response to counter-terrorism legislation.

But he insisted that the university's stance was not discriminatory and any suggestion that it was breaking the law on the protection of free speech was "over-stating" the facts.

Loading article content

READ MORE: Teachers warn learning through play can lead to pupil disruption

Out of 1,300 speaking events in the past year, only 10 had been examined closely in terms of their potential content, he said.

HeraldScotland: Professor Sir Timothy O'Shea, principal of Edinburgh University

Sir Timothy, above, was responding to questions over whether free speech laws should be changed amid concerns some opinions may be being stifled.

Labour MP Harriet Harman, chairwoman of the joint Human Rights Committee, said she has examined the free speech code of practice for Edinburgh as well as other universities.

READ MORE: Teachers warn learning through play can lead to pupil disruption

“What I’ve seen is application forms, appeals process, external speakers panels, prior notice time limits, risk assessments, standard checklists, high level checklists, three-stage assessments – a whole panoply of processes," she said.

“So it looks to me as if these free speech codes of practice are like a machinery for restricting speech rather than promoting it.

“Can’t you just have a simple process for students to be able to book rooms and then just make sure that you are not breaking any of the laws which apply to you?"

HeraldScotland: Commons leader Harriet Harman

“Because it seems to me that unless you do that you are breaking the law that requires you to promote free speech,” Ms Harman, above, said.

Sir Timothy replied: “You did seem to be over-stating it a bit.

“We had to introduce extra process in response to Prevent (counter-terrorism) legislation and we did that.

“Of the 1,300 proposed speaking events in the last year in terms of our process we looked closely at 10.

READ MORE: Teachers warn learning through play can lead to pupil disruption

“Seven went straightforwardly, two we established some extra level of oversight to ensure that there was a responsible university officer there so that if the discussion went off-piste in some way then there could be an intervention, but in neither case was it proved necessary. In the 10th case the organisers were a bit disorganised so it never happened."

“We do feel, like all universities, an obligation to respond to the Prevent legislation and we did have discussions with the students association about that.

“It doesn’t seem to me to have been particularly onerous.”

It comes after one of Scotland's most prominent Catholics, Bishop John Keenan of Paisley, warned that stifling free speech at student campuses suggests “universities have lost their role as wise guardians of society”.

HeraldScotland: Robin Thicke

Edinburgh University has been the focus of the debate since its students association became the first in the UK to ban Robin Thicke’s, above, Blurred Lines from being played in its venues amid concerns the lyrics referred to non-consensual sex.

The Edinburgh University Students Association (EUSA) also operates a safe space policy, prohibiting the use of discriminatory language or actions in its venues.

READ MORE: Teachers warn learning through play can lead to pupil disruption

Patrick Kilduff, EUSA president, said the association would assess the suitability of speakers and if they were high risk it would be referred to the university's compliance group.


He said: "The processes have never stopped someone coming to speak at our university.”

But he also pointed to the National Union of Students' "no-platforming" list of six organisations: Al-Muhajiroun, British National Party (BNP); English Defence League (EDL), Hizb-ut-Tahir, Muslim Public Affairs Committee and National Action.