Friday, 13 December 2013

Universities UK Legal Opinion

There has been a lot of hubbub in the UK press and elsewhere about Universities UK's guidance notes on imposed segregation at University hosted events; bizarrely, they think it is sometimes permissible. See posts from, for example, Nick Cohen, and Ophelia Benson. The BBC reports:
The case study involves an external speaker invited to talk about his orthodox religious faith who subsequently requests segregated seating areas for men and women.
The guidance states that university officials should consider both freedom of speech obligations, as well as discrimination and equality laws when considering the request.
Universities UK says: "If neither women nor men were disadvantaged and a non-segregated seating area were also provided, it might in the specific circumstances of the case be appropriate for the university to agree to the request."
UUK have now published the legal opinion of Fenella Morris QC to support their stance. The key paragraph appears to be no.8:
As set out above, universities that make decisions about the arrangements for external speakers, are required to strike a balance between competing rights and interests. In doing so, they will be obliged to have regard not only to the statutory duty imposed by Parliament in relation to freedom of speech, but also the great importance placed on freedom of speech both in the European jurisprudence and in the HRA. Further, whether the reason advanced for placing a stipulation of segregation of an audience for a particular speaker relies upon the fact that it is the manifestation of a religious belief, two rights – Articles 9 and 10 – will be invoked. These two important rights must be balanced against a right of freedom of association of those who do not wish to be segregated while hearing a particular speaker. Although it would be too simplistic to suggest that the two former rights will always outweigh the latter, it is likely that in many cases the significance of the two former rights will be greater than the latter in terms of where a person sits in order to be part of the audience for a particular speaker if not allowing segregation would prevent the speaker appearing. (my emphasis)
This does seem to go further than many people would think is allowable in a liberal society, I think. Note that the advice does not here mention gender segregation, so the effect of it is to allow the possibility (indeed, to say it is likely) that racist or homophobic speakers should be allowed to dictate how a British University hosts an event, segregating black from white, or heterosexual from homosexual, if their views are religious.

I have to say that there may be some truth to this opinion, since we are talking about a balancing of rights. But to me it shows how dangerous it is to allow religious freedom to trump other freedoms; there really does need to be a hierarchy of rights in such circumstances, and freedoms based on our immutable nature must be given precedence over freedoms based on more mutable beliefs.

Read more »