(17 February 2020) London – On Tuesday, the government took a significant step forwards for free speech. A new report from the Department for Education called for cancel-culture at universities to be stopped.
The white paper, which is unequivocal in its assessment about the dangers the censorship culture presents to academic freedom and individual liberty, proposes prioritising the rights and freedoms of students, academics, and speakers to freely express their views and opinions. The proposals given to Parliament incorporate many of the elements of the protectfreespeech.uk campaign.
The Department for Education relied heavily on the evidence from the recent ADF UK poll to show why the reforms are needed. Among other alarming statistics, the poll found that 44% of students and recent graduates felt that they might face differential treatment by lecturers if they expressed views that were important to them.
What do the new proposals do?
Among other proposals, the white paper recommends the creation of a right of redress in law for students and individuals who have suffered the negative consequences of censorship, including expulsion from university courses. Students and academics could now receive compensation for harm caused by censorship.
A ‘Free Speech Champion’ was also announced to have powers to defend free speech and academic freedom in universities. This ‘Champion’ will be able to directly fine colleges or student bodies which attempt to entrench cancel-culture. The university regulator, the Office for Students will also have additional powers.
By proposing to strengthen the existing law, the Education Secretary has shown serious resolve to bring about change and to keep universities and Students’ Unions more accountable for their actions and failures.
These are important steps towards tackling the widespread and chilling culture of intolerance that has limited free expression and robust academic debate over the past few years.
How will this benefit free speech?
Firstly, the government has admitted that the problem at universities is a growing one and is hugely detrimental both to academic and individual freedom.
Secondly, the government has shown an intention to penalise those who censor or permit censorship on campuses. The current situation has been able to flourish because there have often been very few consequences for those who infringe rights.
Thirdly, the government has declared that it wishes for individuals who are harmed to be compensated. This recognises that there is always a victim of free speech censorship.
The announcements are a step in the right direction for individuals like Julia Rynkiewicz, who was suspended from her midwifery training at Nottingham University on account of her pro-life views. Under these new proposals, she would have been able to receive direct compensation for how she was treated – and the whole situation might even have been avoided.
Academics and speakers who have been silenced, no-platformed, or refused access to publishing research could also be helped in the reforms.
It is hoped that the proposals will open up access to justice for future students who, like Julia, may fall victim to censorship at university. In addition, the proposals mean that student unions will not be able to claim that the duty to actively promote free speech doesn’t apply to them in some cases.
Will these proposals prevent cancel culture in the future?
Although the proposals were extremely positive, free speech is still not fully protected at universities. For that, culture-wide change is needed.
Until the law has been amended, the proposals remain good ideas.
Until the new ‘Champion’ shows a willingness to challenge universities and individuals for infringing rights, the role will be only symbolic.
Until universities receive the training and updated guidance they need, old practices will continue. Yet, for his bold and daring move to tackle the growing problem, the Education Secretary should be applauded.