Education secretary Gavin Williamson says universities must ‘do more’ to protect free speech or ‘the government will’

Vic Parsons February 7, 2020
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Gavin Williamson: Unis must protect free speech or 'government will'

Gavin Williamson arrives at 10 Downing Street on December 17, 2019 in London, England. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The Conservative education secretary Gavin Williamson has said that universities should be doing “much more” to protect free speech and the government will step in if they don’t.

In an article for The Times, Williamson said: “The University of Oxford has adopted strong codes of conduct that champion academic freedom and free speech, explicitly recognising that this may sometimes cause offence.

“Every university should promote such unambiguous guidance. If universities don’t take action, the government will.

“If necessary, I’ll look at changing the underpinning legal framework, perhaps to clarify the duties of students’ unions or strengthen free speech rights.”

His comments come in the wake of student protests against anti-trans speakers that have led to several talks by “gender-critical” academics being postponed.

“Gender-critical” academics, who deny their views are transphobic but insist that trans women are men, have accused universities of “no-platforming” them and said they face a “hostile environment”.

In one case, the “hostile environment” amounted to a philosophy professor claiming that she was being personally victimised by transgender pride flags that were put up at her university to protest Donald Trump.

Gavin Williamson made clear in his speech that the right to protest is “sacrosanct” and added that “intimidation, violence or threats of violence are crimes”.

He said that despite new free-speech guidance for universities being published a year ago, this “hasn’t yet put a stop to concerns”. The Conservative manifesto “committed to ‘strengthen academic freedom and free speech'”, he said.

Writing for PinkNews in January 2020, professor and head of the department of sociology at the University of York, Paul Johnson, explained why “freedom of speech” doesn’t mean anti-trans academics are free to spout views on “gender ideology”.

“There is public discussion at the moment about freedom of speech in UK universities. Some people claim that freedom of speech is ‘under attack’ and, in some cases, that they are being ‘silenced’,” Johnson said.

When it comes to the issue of anti-trans speech in universities, Johnson said that if a speaker is promoting or justifying hatred of trans people “by insulting or ridiculing them as a group” then this could necessitate a restriction on free speech.

Johnson added: “It could also be argued, for example, that the talk might encourage a lack of respect for the human dignity of trans people that would strike at, and potentially diminish, their human rights and freedoms.

“If we accept either or both of these examples, then we could say that a restriction on speech is necessary in a democratic society to prevent crime and/or protect the rights of others.

“But what restriction should be applied? A university could, for example, decide that a ‘trigger warning’ is necessary when advertising the event. It could decide that the visiting speaker can only give their talk if another speaker offers a counter view or is given a right to reply.

“It could issue the visiting speaker with instructions on how to engage in respectful debate. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has outlined other examples of reasonable restrictions. A university would only say that a talk couldn’t go ahead if there were no other reasonable options available to address its concerns.”


Related topics: anti-trans academics, free speech, freedom of speech, gavin williamson

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