A bill has been proposed to fine universities if they fail to protect free speech on their grounds.

The Freedom of Speech Bill is one of the many pieces of legislation announced in the recent Queen’s Speech in parliament last week. This bill has considerable consequences around the subject of free speech on university grounds. There has been a debate about if right-wing thought has been restricted on university grounds, with some suggesting that this has occurred while some dispute this. The government has been on the side of suggesting that there has been a crisis in free speech within these institutions and that right-wing thought has been under attack.  

Under this proposed bill, there will be new freedom of speech and academic duties placed on universities and, for the first time, student unions. This means that if students, academics or visiting speakers feel that their right to free speech has been breached, they can seek compensation through legal action. The Office for Students would then have the power to impose fines on these institutions if they have breached these rules.

Our legal system allows us to articulate views which others may disagree with as long as they don’t meet the threshold of hate speech or inciting violence – this must be defended, nowhere more so than within our world-renowned universities. Holding universities to account on the importance of freedom of speech in higher education is a milestone moment in fulfilling our manifesto commitment, protecting the rights of students and academics, and countering the chilling effect of censorship on campus once and for all.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

These proposals come after there has been an upsurge in reporting of speakers not being allowed on campuses. Selina Todd, Carl Benjamin, Amber Rudd and Jordon Peterson have either been sacked, expelled, de-platformed, or physically intimated due to their views. Students have also been bullied because of their viewpoints. In December 2017, a student from Kent said on a radio interview that it was harder to come out as a Tory than to come out as gay. The government hopes that these proposals can strengthen current regulations on speech and help students and staff put forward their viewpoints without the risk of them losing their jobs and feeling intimidated.  

However, many of those associated with universities feel there are already guidelines that protect free speech on these complexes. The National Union of Students has said that there is “no evidence” of a crisis in free speech on university campuses. Gavin Williamson has recently received a letter from the leaders of Index on Censorship, English PEN and Article 19 saying that the proposed changes “may have the inverse effect of further limiting what is deemed ‘acceptable’ speech on campus.”

The announcement law has created controversy, and the question is, what do our journalists think about this proposed law and the broader debate about if right-wing thought is being censored on university campuses.  

Free speech on university campuses has been dwindling for years, and it’s about time that ‘cancel culture’ is challenged and proactively fought against.

Whilst the law isn’t perfect by any means, this landmark legislation should help to combat increasingly intolerant attitudes towards university students and invited speakers, who dare to make remarks that do not fit the ‘woke’ status quo.

It would be a dangerous misnomer to suggest or imply that free speech on university campuses isn’t under attack. There have been several – in fact over one hundred – cases where students and speakers have been ‘no-platformed.

Professor Jordan Peterson, clinical psychologist, had an offer of visiting fellowship rescinded in 2019 after the student union complained his views ‘were not representative of the student body.’

Jordan Peterson resists Bill C-16, which would mandate chosen gender pronoun recognition in Canada.

Peterson rose to fame when he challenged Canadian legislators over compelled speech laws, which would require people on campus to use a trans person’s preferred pronouns.

Dame Jenni Murray, former Women’s Hour presenter, was forced to pull out of an Oxford University talk after she made ‘transphobic’ comments in 2017. She said ‘be trans, be proud – but don’t call yourself a real woman’.

Fundamentally, to ‘cancel’ somebody because they do not conform to a certain ideology or belief system is censorship. Ironically, the very people who claim to be ‘tolerant’ morph into the most bigoted and intolerant people when it comes to ideas they don’t like.

‘If we lose the right to have an opinion, the right to respect other opinions, then ultimately democracy dies. It’s the bedrock of democracy…..you then become something different, you become a totalitarian state run by an illiberal mob, who are the new fascists. Is that what anybody wants? Do liberals want that? 

Piers Morgan, journalist and former Good Morning Britain presenter, talking to Tucker Carlson on FOX News

There is a laughable irony about a culture, which prides itself on being morally superior to others by labelling itself ‘tolerant’ and ‘anti-fascist’, that deploys tactics used by actual fascists to shut down debate and discussion.

It’s also important to remember that cancel culture respects no political affiliation. For the time being, it seems to be conservative voices being stifled, but the nature of cancel culture is that it will eventually come for the left too.

Journalist Peter Hitchens and author Nels Abbey debate cancel culture. Video credit: Channel 4 News

If there was ever a place for a person to go where their ideas and perspectives are scrutinised, challenged and questioned, it’s university. University is supposed to teach you HOW to think, not WHAT to think.

Therefore, to ban ideas that do not fit in to a certain narrative defeats the purpose of a university in the first place.

Consequently, a place where you’re taught what to think – as opposed to how to think – can no longer be called a place of education, but rather indoctrination.

It’s a shame that such a law needs to exist in the first place, but it’s necessary. As a society, we cannot idly sit by and watch our universities cease to be.

Freedom of speech needs to be safeguarded; therefore cancel culture is due a reckoning.

The real crisis in university is health, not free speech.

Universities are grand institutions that allow a marketplace of ideas. Over the last few years, there have been stories about this ideal coming under attack from a wave of de-platforming, censorship and wokeism. But the question we should all be asking ourselves is, do these stories equate to a crisis in free speech, or is this all overblown?

The answer is the latter.   

In 2017-2018, out of more than 62,000 requests by students for external speakers, only 53 were rejected by a student union or university. That is less than 0.1%. In 2018, a joint committee of MP’s found that the claims of a free speech crisis on campus had been “exaggerated” and that the inquiry did not find “the wholesale censorship of debate” that the media was suggesting. But somehow, the likes of the government and the media think that university campuses have turned into authoritarian regimes. This is despite there being a higher chance of being hit a car than a speaker being rejected to speak on university grounds.  

And while the government tries to propose this new free speech law, an actual crisis is going on within university grounds. That crisis is the well-being of students. Students have been experiencing suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety and burnout for many years, and these experiences have been compounded even more by the pandemic. Dr Tim Bono spoke about this crisis in his recent TEDx talk and how there is an urgent need to address this issue. But governments like ourselves spend more time making up a crisis about free speech to please the right-wing intellect of the so-called “culture war” over the wellbeing of students.  

If the government cares about the student experience, it should spend more time addressing the health concerns of students, not speech.  

TEDX Talk done by Dr. Tim Bono about student mental health
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Hamish Hallett is a journalist/broadcaster part of the scribe team at Common Sense. He has a deep interest in current affairs, both domestically and internationally, which you can see through his written work and his podcast called A Spoonful of News. Hamish loves to understand what makes people tick and get to the root of today's issues. Away from the network, Hamish has a profound interest in reading books, keeping active, travailing, meeting new and exciting people and controversially having ham and pineapple on pizza.

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Aaron Fenton-Hewitt is an aspiring journalist and political commentator. He holds a Bachelor's degree in Film from London Metropolitan University, and a Master's in Writing for Creative and Professional Practice from Middlesex University. He wishes to continue his academic career, with a PhD in Politics or related field.

Aaron is also a freelance photographer, an avid foodie and an Arsenal supporter.

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