Universities Minister warns of 'creeping culture of censorship' on campuses
The Universities Minister has promised to "stand up and act" against what he claimed was a "creeping culture of censorship" at British universities.
Sam Gyimah's remarks follow last week's fracas at the University of the West of England, where masked protesters tried to shout down Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg.
"The threats to free speech are on the rise and I’m concerned this represents a creeping culture of censorships in our universities," Mr Gyimah told Parliament's Human Rights Committee.
While he acknowledged that a recent survey showed 83% of students felt "free to express views on campus", certain reports had given him "real cause for concern".
He pointed to protests against events featuring gay rights activist Peter Tatchell and the writer Julie Bindel.
"These people are hardly reactionaries yet they face the sort of opposition you’d associate with racists and fascists on campus," Mr Gyimah said.
'TIME TO STAND UP'
The minister, who replaced Jo Johnson in the recent ministerial reshuffle, said there were particular difficulties hosting events relating to Israel on campuses.
And he argued that disrupted events are not the only sign of a clampdown on free speech.
"Just as important is what is hard to measure here which is the larger number of events that do not happen at all either because the organisers were worried about obstruction or because of the overzealous enforcement of rules make them seem more trouble than it's worth," he told the MPs and peers.
"In my view these restrictions and disruptions are unacceptable. On some US campuses we’ve seen a culture of censorship that is restricting free speech and I do not want that to happen here.
"This is the time I would say for us to stand up and act on this before it is too late...[free speech] is so precious that what I don't want to be commonplace at our universities is censorship, because if that were to be the case it would be very difficult to wind the clock back."
Addressing the same committee, Mr Rees-Mogg played down last week's incident in Bristol, where an event he was addressing was interrupted by protesters.
"First of all I think it’s important not to get this out of proportion… I think the TV pictures made it look much more dramatic than it was," he said.
"The only thing I think was odd was that they turned up wearing masks and I think wearing masks was the one bit that ought not to have happened."
He said he was more worried about online abuse directed at female colleagues in the Commons.
"I’m actually much more concerned about the online abuse that particularly female MPs receive, which is threats of violence and attacks and male MPs don’t seem to get that, even people like me who are quite controversial don’t suffer from online abuse in the way that female MPs do.
"That is deeply unpleasant and very risky for who will represent us in future, because I think that’s much more off-putting than a small protest."