In the past few years there have been dozens of stories about speakers refused platforms, invited then finding their invite revoked or having events cancelled last minute due to pressure or fear.
Today the Education Secretary warned of ‘chilling effect’ where students and staff at universities felt that they could not express themselves freely and so went on to announce tougher legal measures to strengthen free speech and academic freedom at universities across England. (Devolved Assemblies manage their own education policies)
The proposals include a new free speech condition placed on higher education providers in order to be registered in England that access public funding. The Office or Students will also have power to impose sanctions including financial penalties for breaching the conditions. The duties will also extend to Student Unions and will enable individuals to seek compensation through the courts if they suffer a loss as a result of the breach.
These new rules will mean controversial topics, debates and ideas can be explored. While promotion of hate and discrimination will still not be tolerated, universities are the key place where ideas should be discussed freely, where they can be challenged and shared.
Education Secretary Gavin 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.
In addition to this, Gavin Williamson hopes to appoint a new ‘Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion’ to investigate infringements, engage with universities and try to make sure people are no longer no-platformed or dismissed because of viewpoint diversity.
Will it work in practice? I guess we will see when the universities re-open!