Free Speech on UK Campuses: Is this the Real Threat?

Free Speech on UK Campuses: Is this the Real Threat? - Civic Space

Guild of Students, University of Birmingham. Photo: Elliott Brown

The UK government is setting out plans to appoint a “free speech champion” to protect free speech on university campuses. 

Under the plans, set out on February 16 by education secretary Gavin Williamson, people who believe their right to free expression has been violated by so-called “no platform” approaches to public speaking events will be able to file lawsuits against the university in question — and to student unions if that’s where the perceived violation took place. 

“Free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views and cultivate an open mind,” Williamson said. 

In response to the plans, Quinn McKew, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19, said, “Universities are a key place where ideas should be debated, even incredibly challenging ones. ARTICLE 19 supports the practice of free expression, including providing a place for offensive and ‘problematic’ speech to be debated. This means both speech and counter speech have roles that need to be respected in law.”

But is free speech really under threat in UK universities? Campuses have certainly seen a rise in visiting speakers being barred from university events, including former home secretary Amber Rudd, who was informed at the last minute that she would no longer be welcome to speak at a UNWomen Oxford UK Society event about her time as women and equalities minister.  But in general, universities have a robust free speech policy in place and the National Union of Students insists free speech is not under threat.

“ARTICLE 19 believes it is not the role of the government to decide who is invited to speak on campus,” McKew said. “There are many ways in which protection of freedom of expression in the United Kingdom can be improved but a law of this kind is not one of them. Instead of promoting expression, the broad remit of this proposed law would have the effect of policing speech at universities, and it should be scrapped. If nothing else, it would have a chilling effect on academic freedom.”

If the UK government is serious about protecting freedom of expression, it should revise proposals that would censor speech under the vague concept of “harm”, such as those in the forthcoming Online Harms Bill. It should also address whether the high levels of surveillance on campuses is impinging on students’ and academics’ right to privacy. With surveillance technologies having a greater influence in UK life, and these technologies becoming more intrusive all the time, it’s time the government look at what impact they can have on our rights, including our right to speak freely and our right to protest. 

ARTICLE 19 also notes that the right to education has been under severe strain due to measures put in place during the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of legislation on who can speak at campuses, the UK government should provide comprehensive support for students and academia during this time. 

The National Union of Students (NUS) refuted there was a freedom of speech crisis on UK campuses, and urged the government to turn its attention on supporting students through the pandemic. “Students’ unions are committed to freedom of expression and are the very home of rigorous debate and new ideas,” the NUS said. “There is no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus, and students’ unions are constantly taking positive steps to help facilitate the thousands of events that take place each year.”