UK Universities Required to Protect Free Speech

Minister of State for Universities and Science in the UK, Jo Johnson, recently made a government announcement, outlining plans to allow the Office for Students (OfS) impose sanctions in the form of fines if ‘no platform’ policies are enforced by students’ unions in relation to controversial speakers. This is a continuation of Johnson’s plan to expand freedom of speech and “vigorous disagreement based on mutual respect” in universities, which was outlined in a letter published in March. In February, the magazine Spiked published a report indicating 90% of universities in Britain restrict free speech.As part of a consultation, launched on October 19th, on how the OfS will perform its functions of upholding education standards, the Department of Education aims to expose a wide range of issues and ideas in a safe environment without fear of “censorship, rebuke or reprisal.” The consultation will also examine the publication and justification of high salaries for senior staff.In Johnson’s letter, he stated “that it was the ‘legal duty’ of universities to ensure as far as practicable that freedom of speech is secured for ‘members, students, employees and visiting speakers’.” The powers of the OfS could include the ability to fine, suspend, or deregister universities. Officials anticipate the OfS will receive these legal powers in April 2018.As reported in the Telegraph, the Department for Education has previously stated that the OfS “will be able to hold universities to account on their duty to secure free speech, ensuring it is upheld by staff, student unions and student societies.”“In the last year alone, 21 universities have banned high profile speakers from attending lectures, debates or speeches because of their views, including Oxford, King’s College London and University College London.” A Department of Education report found that multiple universities have banned the sale of certain newspapers in student union premises. This can be seen in UCD, in 2015 UCDSU banned the sale of the Irish Daily Star in campus shops.The report suggests that more than 60% of universities severely restrict free speech. This number has increased from previous years, with the Telegraph reporting that “the survey shows that [the number of] universities now severely restricting speech... has risen by nearly 10 percent in a year, up from 55 percent in 2016.”The Chairman of the OfS, Sir Michael Barber, has stated that the OfS will “vigorously” promote free speech in British universities. Barber emphasised that freedom of speech is “a fundamental aspect of learning at university.” Minister Johnson reiterated that the UK government would promote free speech “at all costs” and that freedom of speech “goes to the heart of democratic values and is a principle universities hold dear.”“I know there is good practice out there, and am proud that some of our university leaders and academics have publicly defended free speech. But there are still examples of censorship where groups have sought to stifle those who do not agree with them.”Recently in Trinity College Dublin, it was announced that Nigel Farage would visit the College Historical Society (the Hist) where he would receive the society’s Gold Medal. The medal was to be awarded for Farage’s outstanding contribution to public discourse, relating to his role in the campaign for Brexit.The announcement sparked backlash against the decision to award Farage for his role as a Brexit advocate, and the Hist has since announced they will not be presenting Farage with a Gold Medal. Speaking to the Irish Times, the auditor of The Hist explained they award Gold Medals to those “who have made their mark in many different fields as well as in the public sphere, and to individuals who often hold divergent views.”Although the Hist will no longer present Farage with the Gold Medal due to the disagreement of a large number of students, Farage is still invited to visit the Hist.