Universities could be fined or suspended for failing to protect free speech

The Government’s Universities Minister, Jo Johnson MP, has called for institutions to protect free speech on campus, and said that any that fail to protect it could be fined, suspended or de-registered by a new regulator.

Jo Johnson MP, Universities Minister, has called for ‘a culture of openness and debate’ on university campuses. Photo: EU2017EE Estonian Presidency/Flickr.

Speaking to The Times, Mr Johnson said students need to ‘accept the legitimacy of healthy vigorous debate in which people can disagree with one another’.

“That’s how ideas get tested, prejudices exposed and society advances.

“Universities mustn’t be places in which free speech is stifled,” he said.

The comments came on the same day that the Government launched a consultation on the new university regulator, the Office for Students (OfS).

Sir Michael Barber, OfS Chair said: “The Office for Students will be a modern regulator which consistently puts the interests of students – short, medium and long-term – first.”

Sir Barber went on to add: “Ensuring freedom of speech and learning how to disagree with diverse opinions and differing views of the world is a fundamental aspect of learning at university. The OfS will promote it vigorously.”

The news of universities potentially being penalised for failing to protect free speech comes after the Lincoln Students’ Union were criticised for its actions against the Conservative Society earlier this year.

The SU society had its social media accounts temporarily suspended in March after it criticised the union’s free speech record on Twitter – something which the Students’ Union claimed ‘brought the union into disrepute’.

Whilst a motion was passed on Monday meaning that criticism of SU policy by students no longer constitutes this, the Students’ Union’s policy on external speakers remains unchanged.

Responding to today’s news, Lincoln SU told The Linc that ‘[they] have not prevented anyone speaking at any events, meetings, functions, or sports or societies fixtures’.

As reported 6 March, ‘the External Speakers Policy and all other Students’ Union policies and decisions are in line with the Charity Commissions Guidelines, to ensure that we comply with the law.’ This protects students and aims to provide a safe environment in which all issues can be discussed and debated,” they said.

The Students’ Union then went on to add that they ‘recognise the importance of free speech and its place at the heart of our democratic values’.

As reported 7 March, ‘freedom of speech is a fundamental value of the Students’ Union. The SU is built on a foundation where students can express opinions and ideas freely within the law’, and ‘we are proud to protect the rights of all individuals to express their opinions, ideas and concerns’,” they concluded.

Meanwhile, a University of Lincoln spokesperson said: “The University of Lincoln is committed to the principle of free speech exercised responsibly within the law in all its activities.

“The right to think and speak freely and to explore ideas is fundamental to the idea of a university.

“Upholding academic freedom and respecting the views of others are joint commitments shared by all members of the University and we have a clear Code of Practice on the Freedom of Speech, which is designed to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for all staff, students and visiting speakers.”

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