Gavin Williamson launches plan to protect free speech and combat ‘unacceptable silencing’

Gavin Williamson launches plan to protect free speech and combat ‘unacceptable silencing’


Gavin Williamson launches plan to protect free speech and combat ‘unacceptable silencing’

Gavin Williamson launches plan to protect free speech and combat ‘unacceptable silencing’

Gavin Williamson has unveiled a series of measures to aimed at protecting free speech, as he warned against the “chilling effect” of “unacceptable silencing and censoring” has on university campuses.

The new proposals are an attempt to strengthen academic freedom at universities in England and include the appointment of a “free speech champion” who will be tasked with investigating potential breaches, such as no-platforming speakers or dismissal of academics.

Universities that wish to be registered in England and have access to public funding will have to obey a new free speech condition. The Office for Students (OfS) regulator would have the power to impose fines on institutions if they breach the condition.

Student unions would also have to take steps to ensure lawful free speech is secured for members and visiting speakers under the strengthened legal duties.

Individuals who suffered loss from a breach of the free speech duties – including being expelled, dismissed or demoted – would be able to seek compensation through the courts under the new legal measure.

Mr Williamson said: “Free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views and cultivate an open mind.

“But I am deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring. That is why we must strengthen free speech in higher education, by bolstering the existing legal duties and ensuring strong, robust action is taken if these are breached,” he added.

The Department for Education (DfE) said the next steps for legislation will be set out in due course.

The move has been welcomed by academics, but the notion that free speech is being suppressed on campuses was rejected by student unions.

Tom Simpson, an associate professor of philosophy and public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, said DfE’s policy paper was a “very welcome step towards ensuring that viewpoint diversity is protected”.

Mr Simpson, who is also an associate fellow at centre-right think tank Policy Exchange, added: “As Cambridge University’s recent Senate House vote shows, there is a substantial majority of academics who favour academic freedom.

“The problem, as Policy Exchange’s research has explored, is that a very online culture allows the views of a minority to exert disproportionate influence on administrators, and to exert a chilling effect on other academics.

“Promoting a norm of political non-discrimination, and incentivising administrators to do what they are already legally obliged to do, is a crucial step towards ensuring a culture of free discourse in our universities.”

But Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said the new measures signalled the government was “more interested in fighting phantom threats to free speech” than focusing on the coronavirus pandemic.

“In reality the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, or from so-called ‘cancel culture’, but from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus, and a failure to get to grips with the endemic job insecurity and managerialist approaches which mean academics are less able to speak truth to power,” she said.

Hillary Gyebi-Abiabo, vice president for higher education at the National Union of Students (NUS), said student’s unions are “committed to freedom of expression” and represent the “very home of rigorous debate and new ideas”.

“There is no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus, and students’ unions are constantly taking positive steps to help facilitate the thousands of events that take place each year,” she added.

“We recognise this announcement as an opportunity for us to prove once and for all that there is not an extensive problem with freedom of expression across higher education.”

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, said: “Free speech and academic freedom are essential to teaching and research. Universities and colleges have legal duties to protect both free speech and academic freedom, and their compliance with these responsibilities forms and important part of their conditions of registration with the OfS.

“We will ensure that the changes that result from today’s proposals reinforce these responsibilities and embed the widest definition of free speech within the law.”

A spokesperson for Universities UK (UUK) added that there are already “significant legal duties placed on universities” to ensure freedom of speech is protected and universities are required to have a code of practice on free speech.

The organisation is awaiting further details on the proposals, particularly about the “role of the free speech champion” before commenting further, she said.


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