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New measures proposed to promote free speech at universities

3 min read
16 February 2021 | UK NEWS

The Education Secretary has announced plans to ensure that freedom of speech on university campuses is protected across the country.

Gavin Williamson announced that, under the plans, universities would be required not only to protect freedom of speech, but also to promote it. The new measures will also give the Office for Students (OfS) the power to impose fines on universities that are seen to stifle freedom of speech.

This would also apply to the student unions at the universities, forcing them to ensure that speakers are protected.

The measures will also provide protection for those who consider themselves ‘cancelled’ by universities, allowing staff or students to go to court and claim compensation for being dismissed or expelled.

The Education Secretary 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.”

Mr Williamson is also set to appoint a new ‘Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion’, who will have the power to investigate potential infringements, according to the Government’s own announcement of the plans.

The Prime Minister tweeted his own support for the plans this afternoon:

The proposals have been met with caution by some universities, which claim that the laws may impact “institutional autonomy”.

The Russell Group universities responded to the proposed legislation by saying: “It is important that proposals in this government policy paper, if taken forward, are evidence-based and proportionate, with due care taken to ensure academic freedom and institutional autonomy.

“Government should support existing work by universities and students’ unions to defend and maintain freedom of expression on campus, rather than adding unnecessary and burdensome bureaucracy.”

There were also claims that the legislation would be an even bigger threat then cancel culture. Jo Grady, General Secretary of the University and College Union, said: “In reality, the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, nor from so-called ‘cancel culture’, but from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus.”

Turning Point UK, a conservative campaign group that operates on university campuses across the country, told Wolves:

“Turning Point UK fully endorses the Government’s proposals to protect free speech. For too long, the left wing have had a monopoly on opinions, actively clamping down on opposing views. We hope the Government’s new measures will begin to address this.”

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