Government in unprecedented free speech intervention

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The government has released proposals to force universities to guarantee free speech on campus, threatening to fine or even deregister dissident institutes in an unprecedented government intervention into student affairs.

Universities minister Jo Johnson unveiled the plans in an interview with the Times, which would see the new regulatory body the Office for Students given the responsibility of maintaining free speech across England’s 109 universities.

He argued that the status quo in universities fails to fulfil their purpose of challenging students by exposing them to controversial concepts and speakers.

“Freedom of speech is a fundamentally British value which is undermined by a reluctance of institutions to embrace healthy vigorous debate. Our universities must open minds not close them.”

The minister justified his new proposals by invoking the no-platforming of speakers such as Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell by student groups. However, despite a media storm around the cases, neither activist were actually denied the chance to speak and both went on to deliver the speeches they intended.

One member of Lancaster’s Conservative Future Society, welcomed the government’s proposals.

He said: “The most effective way with dealing with those views deemed contemporarily unacceptable or toxic, is to allow them to surface. Once said views are heard, and appropriately debated on their lack of merit or validity, it is up to the listening parties to dismiss them”

“If views are as poisonous and narrow-minded as people portray them to be, the resulting reaction from the listening party will be enough to ensure such views are dispelled, or remain with the minority who will be demotivated by the reaction”

Spiked, an online magazine that produces free speech rankings of British universities, has given Lancaster a “Red” ranking and claims that “Lancaster University and Lancaster University Students’ Union collectively create a hostile environment for free speech.”

“The university, which has maintained its Amber ranking, places some restrictions on offensive speech. The students’ union, which has maintained its Red ranking, bans racist, sexist and homophobic speech under its Equal Opportunities policy, and prohibits students from offending ‘faith groups”.”

Spiked is the online continuation of Living Marxism, the former magazine of the British Revolutionary Communist Party that was closed after it was taken to court over claimed misrepresentation of the Bosnian Genocide. Its rankings have been described by past Lancaster University Students Union Vice Presidents as “unreliable.”

“The Spiked Ratings (of which I am dubious of their validity) do raise some concerns with Union policy, namely with not allowing insults towards certain groups. What constitutes ‘insulting’ is both unambiguous and poorly defined by the University.”

Lancaster Students Union President Joshua Woolf slammed the suggestion from Spiked and others that Union policy constitutes an unjustified assault on free speech.

“The Spiked rating given to the Union does not take into account the legal requirements for
charities to have certain policies. None of the policies that are cited by Spiked restrict any
person or groups from speaking at Union events, but instead work to manage risks by
objecting to any and all forms of hate and discrimination”

“We encourage students to embrace debate, but do not tolerate harassment or hate speech as they fundamentally limit inclusion and do not promote academic advancement. Spiked has shown an obsession with labelling things as ‘political correctness’. Students’ Unions asking people not to be sexist, racist, or homophobic is not censoring.”

The new policies will likely put the Union into conflict with Lancaster University, which under the proposals will take the brunt of government action and potential financial penalties for the free speech policies of the student union. Woolf stressed the independence of the union and that its priorities lie in protecting student welfare.

“Lancaster University Students’ Union is a separate and independent organisation from the University. We operate within the law and comply with the regulations of the Charities Commission. The union has zero tolerance for discrimination, as laid out in our Zero Tolerance Policy.”

The Students Union has in the past passed a “no platform for fascists” resolution in opposition to the British National Party. It has also prohibited the sale of the Sun in LUSU shops. However, Union policy lapses on a three year basis, and neither resolution is active policy.

A 2016 poll found that 63% of students supported the NUS in its no platform policies, while only 14% disagreed. So, the government’s proposals are in opposition to the majority of student opinion, although Jo Johnson has stated the new Office For Students will have student representatives on board when the policy is finalised.

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