Barristers have labelled the advice from Universities UK to allow gender segregation on university campuses a “disgrace”.
39 Essex Street’s Fenella Morris QC advised Universities UK on the move last week, opining that it was legitimate for a speaker to ask for an audience to be segregated by gender so long as neither sex was disadvantaged by their position within the room, and a non-segregated area was available.
Universities UK withdrew the controversial policy on Friday (13 December) after an intervention by Prime Minister David Cameron.
Leading human rights barristers slammed the policy as a outrage, with Matrix Chambers barrister Aileen McColgan commenting that the advice was “somewhat peculiar”.
She said: “I thought that it was somewhat peculiar to interpret freedom of expression as including the freedom to preach to the audience of your choice. It is one thing to say that somebody is free to speak; it is another to say that their requirements regarding segregation will be facilitated.
“Freedom of expression is a qualified right and the right not to be discriminated against is a fundamental right.”
Barrister and Head of Legal blogger Carl Gardner added: “I do think it’s a disgrace – this concept of separate but equal.” He added that he believed the balance of freedom of speech and sexual equality had not been properly addressed.
“To me there is no real balance at all. The person can speak or not. Whether they choose to do so does not affect their freedom of speech. The interference with someone’s freedom of speech by not allowing them to dictate where their audience sits, is so miniscule that it really does enter a serious balance with having equality between the sexes in a public forum.”
McColgan added that the Universities UK advice that a non-segregated area should be available to audience members was unlikely to an effective method of promoting equality.
She explained: “Obviously it can be lawful for people to self-segregate. The difficulty is that if you do have a segregated system, perhaps if organisers allow a couple to sit together, you cannot easily police the pressure that would be put on people to conform.”
Following government intervention, Universities UK chief executive Nicola Dandridge commented: “Universities UK agrees entirely with the Prime Minister that universities should not enforce gender segregation on audiences at the request of guest speakers.
“However, where the gender segregation is voluntary, the law is unclear. We are working with our lawyers and the EHRC to clarify the position. Meanwhile the case study which triggered this debate has been withdrawn pending this review.”