Universities will be required to adopt the free speech condition in order to be registered in England and receive public fundingNumber 10/Flickr

The government is to name a “free speech champion” with powers to fine universities or student unions found to curtail free speech, and order reinstatement if universities demote or dismiss an individual for their opinions.

The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, is due to announce the new role today (16/02), with reports in the Independent indicating that it will be an appointment within the Office for Students (OfS), the UK’s Higher Education regulator.

Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, a Department of Education source said that the measure was a response to the “chilling effect” of supposed “unacceptable silencing and censoring” across universities, with the plans requiring universities to adopt the free speech condition in order to be registered in England and receive public funding.

The regulator for the OfS would then be entitled to impose fines on universities breaching the new rule.

Student unions will also bear legal responsibilities, and will be encouraged to ensure that free speech is secured for students and visitors. Meanwhile, individual members of universities will have the right to seek compensation through the courts if they suffered an expulsion, dismissal or demotion under the new law.

News of the new role comes as Williamson said he wrote to vice-chancellors to press them to “champion free speech”, adding that the government was looking at “how to strengthen it further”.

“What must not happen is that universities decide whose words will be heard and handed down to the next generation and whose will be unheard,” Williamson said.

Williamson had previously stated that the government would step in to “defend free speech” last year after an event at the University of Oxford event featuring Amber Rudd, the former Home Secretary, was cancelled thirty minutes before it was due to start. This was a result of student opposition in an alleged act of ‘no-platforming’, with students at the time such as Safa Sadozai from the Oxford Feminist Society criticising Rudd’s role in the Windrush Scandal.

Williamson has elsewhere praised Cambridge’s Statement on Freedom of Speech, passed in December last year, as “more than a victory for common sense”, adding that “freedom of speech, thought or expression is one of the most prized aspects of a civilized society.”

The University’s new Statement on Freedom of Speech, which was passed by a majority of 75% with a 32.1% turnout in a Grace at Regent House, was the subject of three amendments authored by Dr Arif Ahmed, a Reader in the Faculty of Philosophy. These included that the views of others should be met with “tolerance” rather than “respect”, as well as only permitting “no-platforming” in the event that a speaker is “likely to express unlawful speech.”

The vote followed accusations of a previous Statement made in March 2020 as being “vague and authoritarian”, with the Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms arguing that the insistence on “respect” for the views of others could have risked “disciplinary charges and even dismissal for mockery of ideas and individuals with which we disagree”, adding the University “[had] no right to demand that we be respectful towards all beliefs and practices: on the contrary, we have a right, in some cases practically a duty, to satirize and to mock them.”

The vote caused divisions amongst academics at the University, with Dr Priyamvada Gopal, Professor of Postcolonial Studies at the Faculty of English, drawing on the example of Toby Young, social commentator and Director of the Free Speech Union, and his wish to invite Canadian professor Jordan Peterson to talk at Cambridge to argue that what “is at stake is giving eugenicists, racists, and transphobes a prestigious platform”.

The government’s new measure will also see a discussion around national heritage, with Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, being expected to lead a roundtable discussion with over twenty heritage and culture bodies, including the National Trust and the British Museum.

Dowden has also sent heritage and cultural institutions a letter arguing that countries should not “run from or airbrush the history upon which they are founded”, with a source from Dowden’s department saying that the roundtable initiative is aimed at “defend[ing] our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down.”

This defence of British culture and history expounded by Dowden follows a discussion held by Churchill College last week (11/02) which proposed a “critical re-assessment” of Winston Churchill’s views on race and his legacy in British society.


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The negotiation with Britain’s racial past and present saw speakers such as Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University, suggest that Churchill is perceived as “a saintly figure who’s beyond reproach” and an “important part of British identity”. Meanwhile the event itself caused controversy prior to it being held, with Nicholas Soames, Churchill’s grandson, calling this re-assessment an “idiotic debate that’s got out of control in all our universities”, as Frank Furedi, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Kent Univeristy, called it “a plundering of history and a systematic attempt to recant the past.”

Jo Grady, the University and College Union (UCU) General Secretary, has criticised the government’s priorities amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, arguing that it “appears more interested in fighting phantom threats to free speech than taking action to contain the real and present danger which the virus poses to staff and students”, adding that “the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come [...] from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus”.

A 2018 report from the Parliamentary Human Rights Committee “did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities,” but the Committee’s chair, Harriet Harman, maintained that “there is a problem of inhibition of free speech in universities.”

Meanwhile Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, Vice President for Higher Education at the National Union of Students (NUS) argued that claims of “a freedom of expression crisis on campus” are unfounded, but added that the government’s new legal obligation will act “as an opportunity for us to prove once and for all that there is not an extensive problem with freedom of expression across higher education.”

The Cambridge SU has been contacted for comment. The Cambridge Union declined to comment.