Government plans to protect freedom of speech in universities

Jo Johnson outlines plans to protect freedom of speech in universities, in light of increasing censorship

The government is reportedly planning to protect freedom of speech within universities, a letter written by the universities minister Jo Johnson has revealed.

In the letter, which is to be disseminated to all universities, Johnson wrote that it was the duty of universities to ensure that freedom of speech is ensured for “members, students, employees and visiting speakers”. As a result, public speakers may no longer be able to be banned from speaking at universities.

This comes after allegations of censorship have affected UK universities, with The Times reporting that 94 per cent of campuses have some form of restriction on freedom of expression. It cites Julie Bindel, a radical feminist who had made allegedly transphobic comments, and was subsequently banned from speaking at Manchester University’s Student Union.

Johnson said: “It is important to note that the duty extends to both the premises of the university and premises occupied by the student’s unions, even when they are not part of the university premises.”

Johnson is also reported to have written about how the government plans to implement the Higher Education and Research Bill, saying: “The government proposes to raise the issue of freedom of speech, with a view to ensuring that a principle underscoring the importance of free speech in higher education is given due consideration”. The Higher Education and Research Bill proposes that “UK universities must ensure that they promote freedom of thought”.

The Higher Education Bill is currently passing through the House of Lords.

Oxford University has come under criticism for its approach to freedom of speech. In February, the online politics magazine Spiked gave Oxford University and OUSU a ‘red’ rating for campus freedom of speech, for the third consecutive year.

The magazine wrote: “The University of Oxford, the Oxford University Students’ Union and its constituent colleges and JCRs collectively create a hostile environment for free speech. The university, which has moved to a Red ranking, restricts ‘offensive’ and ‘needlessly provocative’ speech, and insists people use transgender pronouns.”

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In an apparently sarcastic response to Spiked‘s criticism, OUSU said: “At OUSU, we’d like to say how proud we are to have received a red ranking from Spiked for the third year in a row. This red ranking recognises, among other things, our work in lobbying the University for a harassment policy which supports all students who need it, our incredibly well-received consent workshops and our firm pro-choice policy which extends to a ban on publications which attempt to manipulate vulnerable people into unwanted pregnancies.”

Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was met by protestors from Oxford University Labour Club, Migrant Solidarity and LGBTQ societies when he came to speak at the Oxford Union in November last year. Protestors condemned the Union’s decision to allow him to speak.

In an earlier statement on freedom of speech, Oxford University said: :Recognising the vital importance of free expression for the life of the mind, a university may make rules concerning the conduct of debate but should never prevent speech that is lawful.”

In 2015, OUSU caused controversy by banning the libertarian magazine No Offence from Freshers Fair. Following Johnson’s letter, No Offence editor Jacob Williams told Cherwell: “If this actually results in meaningful change on the ground, it is to be welcomed. Universities are supposed to test and scrutinise ideas and that requires freedom to express any belief you think is justified.

“I look forward to the day when we no longer need to discuss free speech and can instead vigorously discuss the positions that some would like to censor, many of which were common sense just a few decades ago.”