The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will aim to end the so-called ‘no platforming’ of speakers and academics on campuses.
The Conservatives opened a new front in their war on ‘cancel culture’ today, unveiling a new law forcing universities to protect freedom of speech.
Regulator the Office for Students will get the power to fine institutions and student unions for breaching new duties designed to foster ‘a culture of open and robust intellectual debate’.
People who believe their freedom of speech has been impinged will also get the power to go to court to seek financial compensation.
The plan prompted a storm of protest from unions, with the UCU accusing the Gpvernment of ’embarking on a pseudo freedom of speech crusade on campuses’.
Universities have been dogged in the past few years by campaigns to block appearances from figures seen as controversial by some students and staff.
One of the main groups leading the charge to cancel is the transgender lobby. It has targeted people including celebrated feminist Germaine Greer, Former Women’s Hour host Jenni Murray and several academics who champion women’s rights.
General secretary Jo Grady said: ‘There are serious threats to freedom of speech and academic freedom from campus, but they come from the government and university managers, not staff and students.
‘Widespread precarious employment strips academics of the ability to speak and research freely, and curtails chances for career development. ‘Free speech and academic freedom are threatened more widely on campus by government interference in the form of the Prevent duty, and attempts to impose the IHRA definition and examples of antisemitism on universities.
‘If the government wants to strengthen freedom of speech and academic freedom, it shouldn’t be policing what can and cannot be said on campus, and encourage university managers to move staff onto secure, permanent contracts.’ The bill will ensure ‘freedom of speech can thrive for all staff, students and visiting speakers’, and ensure ‘that academic staff feel safe to question and test received wisdom and put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without being at risk of losing their jobs, privileges or promotion’.
Giving the showpiece address in the House of Lords today, the monarch said that the new law would ‘protect freedom of speech’. A Universities UK (UUK) spokeswoman said: ‘Universities are (rightly) already legally required to have a code of practice on free speech and to update this regularly.
‘It is important that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is proportionate by focusing on the small number of incidents, while not duplicating existing legislation and creating unnecessary bureaucracy for universities which could have unintended consequences.’ Other figures who have been no-platformed include the former home secretary Amber Rudd.
In early 2020 she was invited to speak at Oxford University by a student society, but the event was cancelled minutes beforehand because of protests over her links to the Windrush scandal. She had been due to address the UNWomen Oxford UK society. But She arrived to an empty hall after Felicity Graham, president of society, was forced to cancel the event following a majority vote by its committee.
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