Campaigners gave a cautious welcome to the news, but said it would not solve the problem of campus censorship, which has affected pro-life societies
The Government is considering forcing universities to protect free speech, after a series of incidents in which student unions have banned events, including several organised by pro-life societies.
The Times has reported that Jo Johnson, the minister for higher education, has written to all UK universities reminding them that they have a “legal duty” to protect freedom of speech.
Johnson said university premises must not be “denied to any individual or body on any grounds connected with their beliefs or views, policy or objective”.
The Education (Number 2) Act 1986 already obliges universities to protect freedom of speech, and to have a code of practice detailing their policy. Johnson said that such policy documents must not be neglected, since they “are crucial in demonstrating to students that free speech should be at the heart of a higher education community.”
He added: “It is important to note that the duty extends to both the premises of the university and premises occupied by the students’ unions, even when they are not part of the university premises.”
Johnson said this duty could be cemented by making universities “include a principle about freedom of speech principles in their governance documents”. The Government may have the power to make universities include such a principle under “public interest”. Johnson said the Government will launch a consultation on this possibility.
The Free Speech University Rankings, assembled by the magazine Spiked, have detailed a rise in censorship on university campuses. Speakers such as Julie Bindel, a critic of the transgender movement, have been banned from campuses.
Pro-life societies have been among the main targets of censorship. Most recently, groups at Cardiff, Strathclyde and Newcastle have had to fight against proposed bans.
Niall O Coinleáin, chief executive officer of the Alliance of Pro-Life Students, said the proposed moves could have a “positive impact”. But he said the “attitude and culture” of students’ unions was a threat to free speech, which manifested itself more broadly than in direct bans. Pro-life activists often face “bureaucracy and delay tactics”, O Coinleáin said. For instance, some societies were told they could not receive official status, or funding, because their application forms had been lost or they did not meet the requirements for a society.
“What’s needed is for university leaders and academics to call out their peers and students,”O Coinleáin said, “and remind students that the only way to win a debate is to challenge, discuss, and defeat wrong ideas.”
Ryan Day, senior policy officer of ADF International, also welcomed Johnson’s words and said the Government had an “excellent record” on making statements in favour of free expression. He added: “However, until highly controversial, subjective and unnecessary ‘hate speech’ laws are removed, tinkering with university governance will be largely irrelevant as the chilling effect of arrests for ‘insulting’, ‘offending’ or causing ‘alarm’ will continue on and off campus.”