The Government has announced a new law to strengthen free speech rules in English universities.
The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which the Government says will “strengthen freedom of speech and academic freedom” at universities, was one of the proposed laws announced in the Queen’s Speech.
Under the new law, students, academics, or visiting speakers would be able to take court action if they lost out from free speech rules being broken, and the Office for Students would have the power to impose fines on institutions not following the rules.
It comes after the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, warned against a “chilling effect” of “unacceptable silencing and censoring” as he announced measures to protect campus free speech in February.
Patrick O’Donnell, YUSU President, said that “York has a strong record of encouraging debate, with a wide spread of political and campaigning societies on campus.
“No student has ever contacted me to express specific concerns about a free speech issue on campus. Frankly, students at York are more concerned about the woeful lack of Government financial support, and it’s disappointing to see these issues absent from these announcements.”
A 2020 survey of 61 students’ unions from the higher education website WonkHe found that just six events from almost 10,000 involving an external speaker were cancelled in 2019-20.
Four were cancelled for not getting paperwork done in time, one involved a pyramid scheme fraudster trying to get into an entrepreneur society, and the other was moved to a larger space in a town centre because it was a rally featuring Jeremy Corbyn.
The University and College Union general secretary, Jo Grady, also responded to the announcement, saying that “there are serious threats to freedom of speech and academic freedom from campus, but they come from the government and university managers, not staff and students.
“Widespread precarious employment strips academics of the ability to speak and research freely, and curtails chances for career development.”