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UK government will fine universities for canceling hateful speakers in new ‘war on woke’

Emma Powys Maurice February 14, 2021
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Oxford is among the many UK universities to deplatform transphobic speakers (Oli Scarff/Getty)

Universities that cancel hateful, transphobic speakers could be slapped with hefty fines under new plans to be announced by the government, it’s been reported.

On Tuesday (16 February) education secretary Gavin Williamson is expected to announce new measures to strengthen legal protections for free speech in higher education, according to the Telegraph.

He will introduce the role of a “Free Speech Champion” who will be given powers to deal stiff sanctions to colleges or student bodies that attempt to cancel, dismiss or demote those who hold controversial views.

Separately, culture secretary Oliver Dowden has summoned 25 of the UK’s biggest heritage bodies and charities to a summit next week where they will be told “to defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”.

This “war on woke” has been hailed as a bid to “defend academic freedom” in public institutions, with the objective that “public funds must never be used for political purposes”.

But critics fear it could give universities the green light to platform transphobes, homophobes, sexists and racists under the guise of free speech.

“Free speech here means racist, fascist, transphobic, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic (etc) speech *free from* opposition, accountability and consequences,” said Dr Lisa Tilley, a lecturer at Birkbeck. “Universities need to reject this authoritarian move which goes well beyond Trumpism.”

Others pointed to the government’s own report on the topic which stated it “did not find the wholesale censorship of debate which media coverage has suggested”.

“The government appears to support free speech so much that despite there being no evidence of a free speech crisis on campus, they want to create a ‘free speech champion’ with the specific purpose of sanctioning institutions for allowing people to exercise choice and free speech,” said Jo Grady, general secretary for the University and College Union.

A source told The Telegraph: “Free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views and cultivate an open, inquiring mind.

“Unacceptable silencing and censoring on campuses is having a chilling effect and that is why we must strengthen free speech in higher education, by bolstering the existing legal duties and ensuring strong, robust action is taken if these are breached.”

Further details on the so-called free speech measures are expected to be revealed in the coming week.

Related topics: free speech, Free Speech Champion, gavin williamson

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