Government in unprecedented intervention on campus free speech

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Sam Gyimah, the new minister for Universities, has announced sweeping reforms to external speaker policies, in an attempt to preserve freedom of speech on campus.

The reforms will unify the disparate policies on campus free speech that are at the moment determined by the Universities in question. It will be enforced by the Office for students, the new regulatory body that has the power to fine, suspend or even deregister uncompliant universities

The Universities minister said: “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”

“There is a risk that overzealous interpretation of a dizzying variety of rules is acting as a brake on legal free speech on campus.”

This will be the first government intervention in the way that universities handle issues of free speech since the 1986 Education act, which enshrined in law the duty of universities to protect freedom of speech, but left it to the discretion of the institution.

The announcement met a mixed reception from leading representatives of universities and students. Amatey Doku, Vice President for Higher Education of the National Union of Students said:

“We will look forward to contributing to the creation of new guidance, firstly to provide much-needed clarity for the sector but also to ensure that any obligations to free speech are balanced with an institution’s responsibility to keep their students safe from harm,”

“We remain committed to protecting free speech, and therefore hope that an urgent review into the chilling effect of the Prevent duty, as recommended by the JCHR report, will be enacted as part of this process.”

The National Union of Students currently operates a no-platforming policy on six organisations: the far right organisations British National Party (BNP), the English Defence League and National Action , islamist groups Al-Muhajiroun and Hizb-ut-Tahir, and the controversial Muslim Public Affairs Committee;

Alistair Jarvis, the chief executive of Universities UK, said that there were no systematic issues with free speech in British Universities.

“As the Joint Committee on Human Rights recently found, there is no systematic problem with free speech in universities, but current advice can be strengthened. We welcome discussions with government and the National Union of Students on how this can be done.”

“Universities are committed to promoting and protecting free speech within the law. Tens of thousands of speaking events are put on every year across the country, the majority pass without incident.

“A small number of flash points 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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