Universities stifling ‘free speech’ could face fines, warns minister

Posted On: 
26th December 2017

Universities who fail to protect freedom of speech could be hit with a fine as a result, Jo Johnson will warn today.

Jo Johnson has warned universities about their duty to defend free speech
PA Images

The universities minister said institutions have a duty to “open minds, not close them” and said tough penalties are in line to clamp down on student policies such as "no platforming" potential speakers and instilling "safe spaces".

The move follows the launch of the new Office for Students - established in October - which is due to be handed further powers in April to suspend or deregister universities that fail to uphold free speech.

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“Universities should be places that open minds, not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged,” Mr Johnson will tell an audience in Birmingham.

“In universities in America and worryingly in the UK, we have seen examples of groups seeking to stifle those who do not agree with them.

“We must not allow this to happen. Young people should have the resilience and confidence to challenge controversial opinions and take part in open, frank and rigorous discussions.

“That is why the new regulator, the Office for Students, will go even further to ensure that universities promote freedom of speech within the law.”

Mr Johnson, who will deliver his speech at the Limmud Festival, a celebration of Jewish learning and culture, will add that the right to free speech does not excuse the views of hate speakers on campus.

“A racist or anti-Semitic environment is by definition an illiberal one that is completely in opposition to the liberal tradition of our universities,” he will add.

Chief executive of Universities UK, Alistair Jarvis, said institutions are already “absolutely committed” to promoting and securing free speech, but added that it was “important that universities do not become discussion-free zones.”

“There is already a legal duty on the higher education sector to secure free speech within the law and universities take these responsibilities very seriously," he said.

“They have a duty, not only to secure freedom of speech, but also to protect the safety of students and staff.

“This is not always easy to balance, but universities are becoming increasingly experienced in this area and have policies in place.”