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School of Law

Penny Oderberg


PhD Student



Thesis Title

Working title: Democratic principles and equality dilemmas for free speech and academic freedom in universities


Summary of research

If democracy entails self-government then citizens must be fully prepared to take on this demanding role. In this thesis I will carry out a jurisprudential analysis of the literature and law on freedom of speech. I will argue that freedom of speech is not just a right but a necessary tool for political participation that requires skill and access to information in order to be used effectively. Universities as political institutions with distinct devolved democratic duties are best placed to protect and promote its effective use. First, they should prepare young voters for political participation (free speech duty). Additionally, they should produce and distribute authentic knowledge to the public in general (academic freedom duty). They should also act as public forums where the practice of free and open debate can take place.

To fulfil their democratic role, universities should acquire constitutional status with independence and immunity equivalent to other institutions such as that of judiciary independence and parliamentary privilege. The thesis will show that there are similarities in the way that universities and other manifestly constitutional institutions function to protect democracy. I will therefore propose that these freedoms are strengthened and expanded accordingly.

The thesis will then apply this analysis to explain contemporary free speech issues in universities such as ‘speech bans’, ‘no platforming’ and the ‘decolonisation of the curriculum’. The law requires the balancing of competing demands, such as universities’ duty to protect free speech and academic freedom with those restrictions that are ‘necessary in a democratic society’ for the interest of equality and the prevention of disorder on campus. However, there is substantial evidence that controversial but lawful views are being suppressed in universities and that the balance between these different understandings of democracy is currently not been struck correctly.

The overarching aim of the thesis is to uncover principles, concepts and rational tools for establishing the constitutional status of universities in the protection of democracy. The value of this theory is that we will then be able to identify deficiencies, uncertainties and gaps in the law, and make recommendations to strengthen freedom of speech and academic freedom in universities both in the UK and elsewhere.


Penny is a PhD candidate at Queen Mary University of London where she has been awarded a Graduate Teaching Assistantship. She holds a BSc (Hons) in Psychology, an MA in Psychoanalytic Studies and a PGCE in Post Compulsory Education and Training. Penny has worked as a lecturer and curriculum manager in both further and higher education for almost 20 years and has substantial experience in assessment and curriculum design. She is currently working as a psychology lecturer for the Open University, where she also completed her LLB (First Class Honours).



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