The government is to crackdown on free speech on university campuses as a string of Oxford societies cause controversy over speaker invites.
Sam Gyimah, Universities Minister, said yesterday that attempts to silence debate on campuses was “chilling”, and called for student societies to stamp out “institutional hostility” to unfashionable yet lawful views.
Mr Gyimah’s announcement, the first government intervention since the free speech duty was imposed on universities and colleges under the Education Act in 1986, comes after two JCR committee members of Queen’s College cautioned students about attending an event featuring controversial political commentator Brendan O’Neill.
Mr O’Neill, once described by The Sun as “the most hated man on UK campuses,” is due to attend a Third Week dinner hosted by the College’s Addison Society.
The society says it “invites speakers to come and enjoy dinner before sharing their thoughts on a topic of their choice, after which the floor is opened to questions and discussion.”
The JCR’s equalities and welfare teams criticised the Addison Society’s decision to invite Mr O’Neill in a joint email to all students: “Brendan O’Neill is recognised for his controversial opinions, many of which have sparked accusations of transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny. As the Equalities Team we do not endorse the views held by Brendan O’Neill and express serious concern for the impact his words may have for members of the JCR,” the email read.
Mr Gyimah told the free speech summit that 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.”
Under current law, universities must comply with the Equalities Act, Prevent Duty, and existing measures imposed by the Office for Students, the new university regulator which came into force on April 1.
Student unions are often registered charities, and instead are regulated by charities law.
The Oxford SU policy handbook states: “We will not allow the Prevent Duty to restrict our learning, debate, and research: we will lobby for the University to actively promote freedom of expression, whilst protecting safe spaces and students’ right to protest.”
Spiked! magazine – of which Mr O’Neill is the editor – gave Oxford SU a “red” ranking in its “Free Speech University Rankings” for 2017. It cited the banning of a “pro-life group and a student magazine” in its findings. It also gave the University a “red” ranking for its apparent restriction of “offensive” and “needlessly provocative” speech.
Mr Gyimah will use the Office for Students to impose the new government guidance could fine institutions which fail to uphold the rules. The new guidance, Mr Gyimah said, will provide clarity of rules for students and universities, as “bureaucrats or wreckers” must be prevented from “exploiting gaps for their own ends.” Ministers will have input from the National Union of Students, university vice chancellors, and regulators in forming the new rules.
Mr Gyimah hopes action will be taken to protect lawful free speech in “a new chapter” for openness. So-called “no-platforming” would be banned under the new measures.
Last week, 120 students gathered to protest the alleged “TERF” (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) group Women’s Place.
A joint statement from Oxford SU’s LGBTQ+ campaign and the University’s LGBTQ+ society said that Women’s Place were “one of several groups dedicated to challenging trans people’s existing rights in the UK”, and claimed they have “profil[ed] trans women as male sexual predators and vilif[ied] trans activists as violent oppressors of free speech.”
A statement released by Women’s Place says the statement “defames” Woman’s Place and its members and “contains many inaccuracies”.
Oxford SU told Cherwell that it is “keen for greater legislative clarity of free speech on campus, given the current conflicting and confusing guidance from the government.”
“The Joint Commission on Human Rights’s (JCHR) inquiry, and our submission into this earlier this year, highlight this confusion, and could be used as a starting point.”
The JCHR, a parliamentary committee, criticised Oxford SU in a March report for their support of a WomCam protest which shut down a pro-life event, called “Abortion in Ireland”, in November 2017, to which police were called.
An Oxford SU spokesperson told Cherwell at the time that “student groups should have the right to peacefully protest.