Jo Johnson warned against “safe spaces” and “no-platform policies” stifling free speech on campus, and the rising tide of “unacceptable” anti-Semitism in British universities.
In his speech to Limmud in Birmingham yesterday, the Universities minister warned against dangers of shielding students from differing views under the banner of “no-platforming” or “safe spaces”.
He said campus should be a “vibrant free-trading marketplace.. that open minds, not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged”.
“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.”
He added, that “Academics and students alike must not allow a culture to take hold where silence is preferable to a dissenting voice. If we want our universities to thrive, we must defend the liberal values of freedom of speech and diversity of opinion on which they depend.
Johnson’s comments come amid an ongoing debate about free speech at universities, and a number of reports of speakers being censored. Writers that have been criticised and even banned on campus include feminist writer Germaine Greer and Human Rights activist Peter Thatchell, while at University College London (UCL), pro-Israel students were barricaded into a room by pro-Palestinian demonstrators, protesting their talk by Israeli writer Hen Mazzig.
His remarks were welcomed by Liron Velleman, Union of Jewish Students Campaigns Manager who said: “These matters are very close to the hearts of Jewish students. UJS has been at the forefront in the student movement in fighting antisemitism, racism, fascism and discrimination and has long been a leader in advocating clear and explicit No Platform policies.
He added that Johnson’s comments “seek to ensure that university campuses remain a place where student are able to have a free exchange of ideas. No platform policies for those who continue to threaten or incite violence continue to be an important tool against fascism used by NUS, Students’ Unions and student groups.
“Freedom of speech on campus is a fundamental democratic right but there continues to be a role for clear and precise No Platform policies to be used in the fight against violent racism, fascism and other forms of discrimination.”
Johnson also expressed his concern about the climate on campuses for Jewish students and which has been compounded by “unacceptable” anti-Semitic incidents from both the far left and right, such as holocaust denial leaflets distributed at Cambridge University and swastikas at Exeter University.
He told the audience at Limmud on Tuesday: “A racist and anti-Semitic environment is by definition an illiberal one that is totally antithetical to the idea of a university in a free society”.
Under Government plans, universities that fail to protect free speech could face fines. Johnson used his speech to announce the creation of a new which will regulate the sector in a way which will “put the interests of students first” , and which will be chaired by Sir Michael Barber,
The new regulator will have the power to fine or suspend those universities who fail to protect freedom of speech on campus. “Universities cannot afford to be complacent about complying either with their duties to protect freedom of speech” stated Johnson, “or anything less than vigilant against hate speech (or other unlawful activity) masquerading as the exercise of the right to freedom of speech. Both duties are vitally important to a civilised democratic society.”
The proposals, which are open for consultation, could also see universities facing action including suspension and deregulation, if they do not protect free speech.