Education Secretary threatens universities over free speech censorship

Universities must stop restricting free speech or face Government intervention, the Education Secretary has said.

Writing in The Times, Gavin Williamson MP highlighted the worsening situation on some US campuses, and called for action to be taken in the UK.

He said that the Government has a responsibility to do “whatever necessary” to protect students’ rights to free speech.


Williamson said: “Already in Britain students have been expelled for expressing their religious beliefs.

“Mass petitions have called for the dismissal or defunding of academics because of their research interests; on some occasions, universities have caved in to this pressure.

“Too often, activists’ threats are able to shut down events, and there have been appalling incidents directed at the Jewish community at leading London universities.”

Unsuccessful guidance

He acknowledged that guidance on free speech at universities which was published last year had not put an end to the problem, and he committed to going further.

“Already in Britain students have been expelled for expressing their religious beliefs.”

But he said the burden should not fall only at the feet of the Government: “As a start, universities themselves could be doing much more in this area.

“The right to civil and non-violent protest is sacrosanct. However, intimidation, violence or threats of violence are crimes.

“Universities must make clear that intimidation is unacceptable and show a zero-tolerance approach to the perpetrators, applying strong sanctions and working with police where appropriate to secure prosecutions.”

‘Whatever necessary’

Williamson also said the universities themselves needed to be promoting the right culture, by producing their own strong codes of conduct championing the right to free speech, even where this might sometimes cause offence.

He concluded: “If universities don’t take action, the government will. If necessary, I’ll look at changing the underpinning legal framework, perhaps to clarify the duties of students’ unions or strengthen free speech rights.

“I don’t take such changes lightly, but I believe we have a responsibility to do whatever necessary to defend this right.”

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