Johnson said that universities should remain "bastions of liberalism" Arno Mikkor/Estonian Presidency

Universities minister Jo Johnson has met opposition from student representatives, after announcing plans to introduce penalties for universities that fail to defend free speech by allowing ‘no-platforming’.

Johnson’s comments drew criticism from national student groups, who said that blocking speakers can prevent the spread of fascist or hateful speech.

In a speech in Birmingham on Tuesday, Johnson said that UK and American universities had seen “examples of groups seeking to stifle those who do not agree with them.”

No-platforming, in which speakers have their invitation to speak withdrawn, was among a number of trends, including safe spaces and the banning of trigger words, that he said constituted a “particularly worrying challenge to universities as bastions of liberalism”.

The practice has been a feature of student politics since the National Union of Students (NUS), which bans six organisations from speaking at events, adopted no-platforming as policy in 1974.

Recent examples of figures who have been no-platformed include feminists Julie Bindel and Germaine Greer, all of whom were no-platformed for allegedly making transphobic comments. An NUS representative also refused to share a platform with gay rights activist Peter Tatchell at Canterbury Christ Church University, after claiming he was racist and transphobic.

In order to “promote freedom of speech within the law,” Johnson said that universities which fail to prevent such actions could be fined or deregistered. Under the plans, these powers will be at the dispensation of the Office for Students (OfS), the government’s new university regulator, which will begin full operations in April next year. The plans are currently open to consultation.

It is not clear, however, how effective these plans will be on a practical level, particularly at universities like Cambridge. 

Although the University has a unified policy on freedom of speech, which places an expectation on its members to “receive and respond to intellectual and ideological challenges in a constructive and peaceable way,” like other universities it has little control over its student unions and liberation campaigns, the groups most often responsible for no-platforming speakers at universities.

At Cambridge, this difficulty is exacerbated by the collegiate structure, which means that student groups do not necessarily have any direct affiliation to the University, as well as the presence of the Cambridge Union, which has resisted calls to no-platform speakers in the past.

Lenga said that no-platforming was necessary to the protection of studentsNUS UK

Johnson’s speech drew criticism from several student groups. Izzy Lenga, the NUS vice-president for welfare, listed the organisations it currently no-platformed. She said that the NUS does not no-platform individuals, adding: “We are not censoring free speech; we are protecting groups of students on campus who have as much of a right to be there as any other student from groups that wish to harm us physically and mentally because of our identity.”

The Union of Jewish Students (UJS) also released a statement which emphasised the importance of no-platforming to the safety of students on campuses.

UJS campaigns manager Liron Velleman said: “No platform policies for those who continue to threaten or incite violence continue to be an important tool against fascism used by NUS, students’ unions and student groups.”

He continued: “Freedom of speech on campus is a fundamental democratic right but there continues to be a role for clear and precise no platform policies to be used in the fight against violent racism, fascism and other forms of discrimination.”

Angela Rayner, Labour’s shadow education secretary, also criticised Johnson, saying it was a “false choice to suggest that universities are either places of free enquiry or places of safety”.

The plans to curb no-platforming come amid continued controversy surrounding student political activism. After the decolonisation movement at Cambridge was pulled into the spotlight by national media coverage, Nigel Biggar, regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at the University of Oxford, wrote a letter to The Times which defended elements of Britain’s colonial history. The letter stated that the British should “moderate our post-imperial guilt”.

Biggar’s comments drew criticism from both students and fellow academics. 58 Oxford academics signed an open letter which condemned Biggar’s defence as “simple-minded”. A second open letter, which claimed that Biggar’s work “wilfully obscures the complexities” of imperial history, was signed by 170 academics, including 17 from Cambridge.

The culture of student political activism has become more fraught following the introduction of the government’s anti-radicalisation Prevent strategy. Under the Prevent duty, education providers are obliged to ban those who seek to radicalise students. The strategy and its application have been criticised by several academics at Cambridge, who described it as “extraordinarily intrusive and extraordinarily vague”.

In November, a panel discussion organised by Cambridge’s Palestine Society became the subject of controversy when the event’s planned chair was replaced by University with its own director of communications. The intervention lead to criticism by academics of the University’s “increasingly heavy-handed policing of speech on campus” under Prevent.

Johnson’s latest comments follow a similar announcement made in October, when the universities minister launched an OfS consultation to “ensure students are exposed to a wide range of issues and ideas in a safe environment without fear of censorship, rebuke or reprisal”.

In a joint statement made to Varsity following the October announcement, CUSU president Daisy Eyre and Women’s Officer Lola Olufemi said: “Johnson’s comments are part an alarming tradition of high profile individuals positioning safe spaces as a threat whilst ignoring the actual suppression of speech under things like the Prevent duty”.