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UK universities told to protect freedom of speech

Education | Published:

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson raised the possibility of regulation if institutions fail to take action.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has issued a fresh warning to universities on free speech (Jonathan Brady/PA)

UK universities must promote “unambiguous” guidance that protects freedom of speech on campus, the Education Secretary has said.

Gavin Williamson has warned institutions that if they fail to take action on academic freedom and free speech there will be consequences, and raised the possibility of regulation.

The South Staffordshire MP's comments come amid mounting debate about the issue, with reports of speakers, debates, literature and organisations being opposed or criticised, often by student unions, societies or specific groups of students.

There have also been concerns raised that “no-platforming” – in which an individual or organisation is barred from speaking at a particular event – and “safe space” policies are being used to stifle discussion and shut down debate rather than confront ideas.

In an article for The Times, Mr Williamson said universities could be doing much more on free speech.

“The right to civil and non-violent protest is sacrosanct,” he writes.

“However, intimidation, violence or threats of violence are crimes. Universities must make clear that intimidation is unacceptable and show a zero-tolerance approach to the perpetrators, applying strong sanctions and working with police where appropriate to secure prosecutions.”

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The minister highlights Oxford University, saying it has adopted codes of conduct that “champion academic freedom and free speech, explicitly recognising that this may sometimes cause offence”.

Mr Williamson goes on to say: “Every university should promote such unambiguous guidance. If universities don’t take action, the Government will.

“If necessary, I’ll look at changing the underpinning legal framework, perhaps to clarify the duties of students’ unions or strengthen free speech rights.

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“I don’t take such changes lightly, but I believe we have a responsibility to do whatever necessary to defend this right.”

Vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK has previously said that institutions are committed to promoting and protecting free speech and that there is little evidence of a systematic problem.

The Conservatives’ general election manifesto contained a pledge to look at ways to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities”.

Freedom of speech in universities was not specifically mentioned in the Queen’s Speech.

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