The UK government has outlined proposals to bolster free speech protections on university campuses where it says there is a “chilling effect” on staff and students who hold certain political or religious views.
The measures include a “Free Speech Champion” with the power to investigate and redress infringements, a legal requirement to actively promote free speech, as well as financial compensation through courts for those who are ousted over their views.
“Free speech underpins our democratic society,” said Education Secretary Gavin Williamson in a statement. “Our universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views, and cultivate an open mind.”
“But I am deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring. That is why we must strengthen free speech in higher education, by bolstering the existing legal duties and ensuring strong, robust action is taken if these are breached.”
The new measures would also apply to student unions, which would be required to ensure lawful free speech, including for visiting speakers.
Many academics and free speech watchdogs who have raised concerns about “cancel culture” on campus welcomed the proposals.
Student and lecturer’s unions, however, say that the measures are not needed, and risk stifling academic freedom.
Tom Simpson, Associate Fellow at Policy Exchange, welcomed the new policy.
“As Cambridge University’s recent Senate House vote shows, there is a substantial majority of academics who favour academic freedom,” he said in a statement. “The problem, as Policy Exchange’s research has explored, is that a very online culture allows the views of a minority to exert disproportionate influence on administrators, and to exert a chilling effect on other academics.”
The National Union of Students in a statement denied that there was a “freedom of expression crisis on campus,” as claimed by the government. They said that “students’ unions are constantly taking positive steps to help facilitate the thousands of events that take place each year.”
The University and College Union said in a statement that “the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, or from so-called ‘cancel culture,’ but from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus.”
Professor Matthew Goodwin has been highlighting threats to free speech on campus since he was ostracised after suggesting that people accept the Brexit referendum result.
He welcomed the plans.
“By my count, there have been at least two dozen cases where academics have spoken out publicly about being mistreated after merely challenging the established group-think,” he wrote in an article in the Daily Mail. “Many more suffered abuse but dare not say so for fear this will damage their careers.”
“Critics will say that all of this is exaggerated. But a string of recent studies show just how lop-sided our universities have become.
“Today only about one in ten academics are Conservatives while at recent elections an astonishing three-quarter voted for liberal-Left parties like Labour, the Greens or Lib Dems.”