Govt: ‘Universities must encourage free speech’

Universities must uphold free speech or face sanctions, the Government has announced.

Universities Minister Jo Johnson said institutions will now be expected to defend free speech on campus or face being fined, suspended or deregistered by the new higher education regulator, the Office for Students (OfS).

The OfS gets its legal powers in April 2018 and Chairman Sir Michael Barber said it would promote free speech “vigorously”.

Call to change

Johnson said all universities would have a statutory duty to uphold free speech as a condition of registration with the OfS.

He is calling on universities to “encourage a culture of openness and debate and ensure that those with different backgrounds or perspectives can flourish in a higher education environment”.

Johnson says free speech is “one of the foundations on which our higher education tradition is built” and “goes to the heart of our democratic values”.

‘Has every right’

But the Universities Minister warned that despite “some” university leaders and academics defending free speech, there are “still examples of censorship where groups have sought to stifle those who do not agree with them”.

He highlighted the case of feminist author Germaine Greer, who was once threatened with being banned from speaking at campuses for her view that men who undergo a sex change are not women.

Greer, he said, “has every right” to “give views on difficult and awkward subjects”.

“No-platforming and safe spaces shouldn’t be used to shut down legitimate free speech.”

‘Factories of conformism’

Earlier this year, an atheist commentator said students, including those with pro-life values, feel increasingly limited in what they can and cannot speak about on campus.

Brendan O’Neill made the comments in a wide-ranging article for the Spectator magazine – in which he also slammed student groups for resembling “factories of conformism”.

Pro-life students at a number of UK universities have experienced concerted attacks against them including at Glasgow’s Strathclyde University, Newcastle University and Cardiff University.

Restricting free speech

A report in February by Spiked magazine found that more than 90 per cent of UK universities are restricting free speech.

The magazine’s Free Speech University Ranking found that 21 universities have banned speakers from attending debates or lectures in the last year.

Twenty universities have also banned the sale of one or more newspaper on their campuses.

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