YUSU and Uni React to Government Freedom of Speech Proposals

YUSU President Patrick O’Donnell said “the timings are very strange given the far greater priorities of students during a third period of lockdown”.

The University of York and its Students’ Union have reacted to the news that the government has proposed stiffening freedom of speech rules within universities, making them liable for breaches.

The government announced that it wanted to designate a new regulatory “free speech champion”, alongside introducing fines for any university found preventing freedom of speech on campus, according to The Sunday Telegraph.

Patrick O’Donnell, YUSU President, told Vision: “While the timings are very strange given the far greater priorities of students during a third period of lockdown, I welcome the scrutiny, and remain committed to free speech for all those who wish to engage in sensible debate and positive exchange of ideas.”  

“This move may well bring useful clarity for students, academic departments and the University as a whole, on how we best ensure the right to protest and the right to debate in a way that recognises the accompanying Charity Commission’s requirements and expectations of students’ unions.”

The government has proposed extending Section 43 of the Education Act to Students’ Unions, forcing them to be directly responsible for taking reasonably practicable steps to ensure that lawful freedom of speech is secured.

The announcement, led by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, comes in the wake of the government’s accusations that Conservative voices are being stifled by “wokeism” and “cancel culture” on campus.

Speaking on the matter, a spokesperson for the University said: “The University of York, and the York University Students’ Union believe universities should provide a platform where a variety of views can be heard, debated and challenged, and we remain absolutely committed to creating a welcoming and inclusive environment that encourages freedom of speech”.

The new rules will also affect heritage organisations and charities, requiring them to “defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.

Data gathered by NUS and Wonkhe from 61 different student unions in December 2020 found just six events out of 10,000 involving an external speaker were cancelled.