Universities told to ‘commit to free speech’

Jo Johnson MP, the Universities Minister, has announced his intention to protect free speech by punishing universities that ‘no platform’ certain speakers. Johnson’s proposal will be finalised in legislation by the new Office for Students (OfS), a regulatory authority for higher education institutions to officially receive powers in April 2018.

Universities that fail to abide by the new rules could face fines, be suspended or even de-registered by the OfS. The body will only have jurisdiction over English universities. No platforming involves preventing controversial speakers from sharing their views on a university campus: a practice becoming increasingly popular amongst students.

A 2016 student survey, commissioned by the Victoria Derbyshire Programme, found that 63 per cent of those asked supported the National Union of Students’ right to have a no platforming policy. A further 54 per cent of participants thought it fair to extend the policy to ‘people who could be found intimidating’.

Johnson, however, believes that no platforming is an attack on free speech. When speaking to The Times, Johnson stated:  “No platforming and safe spaces shouldn’t be used to shut down legitimate free speech.

“Our young people and 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.”

One particularly controversial case at Cardiff University occurred when Germain Greer, the second-wave feminist writer, was almost prevented from giving a lecture on campus due to her transphobic views.

Then Cardiff University’s women’s officer, Rachael Melhuish, organised a petition that was signed by over 3,000 students calling for Greer’s lecture to be cancelled. Despite the popular campaign, the university ultimately decided to allow the event to continue.

The National Union of Students (NUS) has had a ‘No Platform Policy’ since 1974, and argues that the practice does not impinge on free speech.

“Those who are opposed to the No Platform Policy use the argument that it restricts free speech and that the policy limits the freedom of individuals and organisations to engage in debate on campus.

“However, this is to ignore the fact there are many different freedoms that individuals have including the freedom to choose who to invite to events. NUS supports freedom of speech, thought and expression. But NUS opposes those who attempt to utilise this freedom in order to remove freedoms of others.

“Affording racists and fascists a platform helps them in their search for credibility to promote their message of hate, which in turn can lead to violence against those that they target,” they concluded.

 

Image: Ivan Lai / Photographer

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