UK: Uphold free speech or face fines, universities told
No censorship on campus. Source: Shutterstock

Britain’s universities must protect free speech on its campuses, or face fines if their student unions ban speakers as a “no-platforming” measure, UK’s Higher Education Minister Jo Johnson said yesterday.

Failure to do so could result in a fine or suspension to the universities, confirming plans to allow the Office for Students (OfS) – which will be operational next April – to mete out the penalties, according to The Guardian.

In his speech, Johnson said: “Universities should be places that open minds not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged. In universities in America and worryingly in the UK, we have seen examples of groups seeking to stifle those who do not agree with them.

“We must not allow this to happen. Young people should have the resilience and confidence to challenge controversial opinions and take part in open, frank and rigorous discussions.”

In the UK, students unions have tried to block certain controversial speakers such as feminist writer Germaine Greer and gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchel, from speaking on campus.

“No-platforming” has been a source of tension in British universities lately, with critics on both ends of the political spectrum condemning it as an attack of free speech.

On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Boxing Day, Johnson gave a similar view by calling this a stifling of debate. The minister suggested fines as a way to counter this “no platforming” of speakers with controversial views, although it will be one at the “more extreme end of the spectrum”

The OfS will have a “range of remedies” to deal with no-platforming, according to Johnson.

Commenting on the cases of Greer and Thatchel, he said:

“These are speakers who have been potentially banned or harried under no-platforming or safe spaces decisions. On all reasonable definitions, they are advocates of openness and liberal values and should be welcomed on our campuses.”

Higher education providers are required by the Education (No 2) Act 1986 to protect freedom of speech for staff, students and visiting speakers.

A ComRes survey had found that most university students, however, agree with the National Union of Students’ right to have a “no platforming” policy, where people or groups listed as holding racist or fascist views are banned from speaking on student union premises. More than half (54 percent) of the 1,001 students surveyed also believe the policy should be enforced against those deemed to be a threat to safe spaces.

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