A piece by Rosemary Bennett, Education Editor, in today’s Times:
Students will be banned from refusing speakers a platform at their universities under the first government intervention on free speech on campus for 30 years.
Sam Gyimah, the universities minister, will announce tough guidance on the issue at a meeting today, calling attempts to silence debate “chilling”.
He will accuse some student societies of “institutional hostility” to certain unfashionable but perfectly lawful views. A “murky” legal landscape, with guidance from various regulators, lets zealots censor those with whom they disagree, Mr Gyimah will say.
The new rules signal the seriousness with which the government is taking free speech on campus. The previous universities minister Jo Johnson said last year that the Office for Students, the new university regulator, would enforce existing measures.
Mr Gyimah has decided that the watchdog will use its powers to impose the government guidance. The OfS, which came into force on April 1, could name, shame or even fine institutions for failing to uphold the rules.
The last time the government intervened on the issue was in the Education Act of 1986, when a duty of free speech was imposed on universities. Ministers have grown alarmed at the number of “safe spaces” on British campuses. Originally intended to make sure debate was respectful and speakers were not shouted down, safe spaces have at times been used to silence opinions in case they are seen as offensive.
So-called no-platforming, where a person is prevented from speaking at a particular event or others refuse to share a platform with them, has also been used this way. It was originally a method used to stop fascist speakers.
Mr Gyimah wants action to protect lawful free speech on campus and a single set of guidelines would be “a new chapter” for openness.
“A society in which people feel they have a legitimate right to stop someone expressing their views on campus simply because they are unfashionable or unpopular is rather chilling,” he said before the meeting.
“There is a risk that overzealous interpretation of a dizzying variety of rules is acting as a brake on legal free speech on campus. That is why I am bringing together leaders from across the higher education sector to clarify the rules and regulations around speakers and events to prevent bureaucrats or wreckers on campus from exploiting gaps for their own ends.”
The guidance that governs free speech on campus is issued by organisations ranging from the Charity Commission to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. This is often exploited by opponents of free speech and “overzealously interpreted”, he will say.
The new rules will be drawn up by ministers, but will have input from the National Union of Students, representatives of university vice-chancellors and regulators.
A recent investigation by MPs found that campaigners against abortion, Christian groups and secularists were among those who felt that it was hard to get a hearing at universities.
Feminists who oppose transgender self-identification have also found it hard to speak on campus. The group Woman’s Place had to keep the venue of its meeting last week in Oxford a secret. When it leaked out, more than a hundred students protested outside.
Events involving MPs, including the Conservative Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, have been disrupted on campus. Events on Israel and Palestinian statehood are another target.
Many students and university leaders think that the problem of censorship has been overblown. Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “Tens of thousands of speaking events are put on every year across the country. The majority pass without incident. A small number of flashpoints do occasionally occur, on contentious or controversial issues, but universities do all they can to protect free speech so events continue.”
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