Tag Archives: academic freedom

Liberalism and Freedom of Speech in universities

As the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill moves slowly through Parliament, Liberal Democrats are having to grapple with contested assumptions about freedom of speech and its limits. This is a culture war bill. The polarization of American politics is seeping into Britain. Britain has become a far more liberal society over the past 50 years. We must resist attempts to push the clock back.

The Bill starts from the assertion that universities are incapable of defending free speech. It asserts that a new ‘free speech champion’ and a new right to sue universities are required to restore this freedom for those (staff, students, or visitors) who claim to have been denied the right to speak. It follows Policy Exchange papers, and articles in right-wing papers, that assert that university staff are now overwhelmingly left-wing, that they indoctrinate their students, and that academic culture has a chilling effect on staff who hold divergent views.

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Academic freedom and its enemies

On Monday 12th July the Commons will debate the 2nd Reading of the Higher Education (Academic Freedom) Bill.  This Bill, which closely follows the recommendations of two Policy Exchange papers and of Toby Young’s Free Speech Union, provides for the Office for Students (OfS) to regulate and enforce rules on free speech within universities, and establishes the new post of ‘Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom’ in the OfS.  It gives students, staff and visiting speakers the right to sue universities and student unions for alleged breaches of free speech, with fines to be imposed.  The OfS may also impose penalties.

This is a culture war bill.  The evidence that threats to free speech in universities are greater now than they were 10, 20, 30 or 40 years ago is thin.  The Policy Exchange papers are heavily dependent on US sources and examples – yet another example of the increasing capture of English Conservative thinking by US Republican ideas.  Gavin Williamson decries an attempt to prevent an ambassador speaking at a university – but my wife as a Young Liberal demonstrated to block the South African Ambassador speaking in Oxford in 1963.  He deplores the withdrawal of an invitation to Amber Rudd by an Oxford student society; but I recall at Manchester University in 1968 students disrupting the Education Secretary when trying to speak at an official university event.

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