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16 Feb, 2021 11:24

UK government launches plan to fight ‘unacceptable silencing’ in UK universities

UK government launches plan to fight ‘unacceptable silencing’ in UK universities

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has unveiled the UK government’s plan to tackle “unacceptable silencing and censoring” on university campuses after speakers have been no-platformed and censored for views deemed controversial.

The new measures could force universities to accept a free speech condition if they want to receive government funding, require student unions to guarantee that their members and any guest speakers are entitled to lawful free speech, see institutions that fail to protect free speech face fines and allow speakers who are denied a platform or academics who are dismissed to seek compensation in court. “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,” Williamson declared while announcing the proposals.

I am deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring.

A 2018 report from the UK’s Joint Committee on Human Rights supported Williamson’s concerns, as it found numerous examples of censorship and debates being shut down, raising concerns about restrictions on free speech and the use of “safe space” policies in educational institutions.

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But, the new measures have received a critical response from some in the education sector, as they see the move as unnecessary, believing that concerns about censorship are overblown and there are bigger issues that need to be addressed, particularly given the challenges facing the industry during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“There is no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus,” the vice president for Higher Education at the National Union of Students, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, said opposing Williamson’s proposals, claiming institutions are “constantly taking positive steps to help facilitate the thousands of events that take place each year.”

The National Union of Students currently has a no platform policy, which was introduced in 1974, to fight back against fascist and racist organisations, that allows members to vote on barring speakers from campus to “keep students safe” at the organisation’s yearly national conference.

There has been a growing list of academics experts and speakers, from all sides of the political spectrum, who have been banned or no-platformed by UK universities in recent years due to remarks they’ve made which have been seen as controversial or offensive by some students. 

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Journalist Peter Hitchens had a talk at Portsmouth University indefinitely “postponed” when the Students Union claimed he shouldn’t speak during LGBT+ History Month due to previous views that he’d expressed in his published work. Labour politician Chris Williamson was denied a platform at the Royal Holloway Debating Society over comments that were deemed offensive and controversial by Jewish students. Author and ethologist Richard Dawkins had a planned talk at Trinity College, Dublin cancelled due to his views on religion, particularly Islam. Nobel Laureate Professor Michael Levitt was “uninvited” from a joint university bio design conference for his “Covid claims” despite not planning to discuss the pandemic during his appearance.

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