Sharp rise in rejected speakers on campuses raises free speech concerns

The Higher Education Minister has warned against on campus censorship after a reported increase in speakers and events being cancelled.

Commenting on Office for Students (OfS) figures, Andrea Jenkyns MP said the Government would not tolerate the stifling of debate by universities and colleges.

Under the Government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, institutions in England could face fines if they fail in their new legal duties to protect and promote free speech.

‘Chilling effect’

OfS data show that 193 requests to host events or speakers were turned down by higher education institutions in 2020-21, a 105 per cent increase on the previous year.

In response, Jenkyns said: “Universities and colleges must be places that champion debate and diversity of thought and this Government has warned of the chilling effect of censorship on our campuses.

“While we know that the pandemic made it difficult for many organisations to arrange speaking events, this sharp rise in rejected speakers is very concerning.

“This is exactly why our new Freedom of Speech Bill will ensure universities not only protect free speech but promote it and ensure we are protecting the rights of students and academics across the country.”

Legal obligations

Jenkyns’ concerns were echoed by OfS Interim Chief Executive Susan Lapworth, who said: “Topics which some may find offensive or controversial must be open to free debate”.

She added: “The OfS will continue to regulate universities to ensure they are meeting their obligations for freedom of speech. We are willing to intervene where we have concerns this may not be the case in this fundamentally important area.”

However, Jo Grady from the University and College Union (UCU) claimed talk of a “free speech crisis” was “at odds with the evidence”.

‘Open expression’

Last month, the then Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi called for respectful and courteous debate after he was harassed by LGBT activists at the University of Warwick.

Zahawi had to be protected by campus security guards when activists protested outside a talk he was giving to the University’s Conservative Association.

While ministers plan to tighten legislation through the Freedom of Speech Bill, he said more needs to be done to bring “our culture back towards the virtues of open expression”.

Also see:


Education Minister warns academia against cancel culture intolerance

Academics call on universities to take firm line on free speech

Calls grow for free speech protections in Scots universities’

Commons hears free speech concerns over Online Safety Bill

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