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Government’s controversial free speech plans for universities cite research from a ‘homophobic hate group’

Patrick Kelleher February 20, 2021
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Free speech universities

Gavin Williamson, secretary of state for education. (Wiktor Szymanowicz / Barcroft Media via Getty)

The UK government’s controversial free speech plans for universities cite research from a “homophobic hate group”, it has been revealed.

The government announced on Tuesday (16 February) that a “free speech champion” will be appointed to the board of the Office for Students, a regulatory body for universities.

It was also revealed that new legislation will be brought forward to give people the right to sue universities and student unions if they are deplatformed.

A government white paper outlining the proposals cites research from the international branch of the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), OpenDemocracy reports.

The ADF was officially designated as an anti-LGBT+ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre in 2017. According to the SPLC’s profile, the ADF and its members have “regularly demonised LGBT people, falsely linking them to paedophilia, calling them ‘evil’ and a threat to children and society, blaming them for the ‘persecution of devout Christians'”.

The government white paper, compiled by the Department of Education, references research by ADF International, but fails to mention the group’s stance on LGBT+ rights.

“The fact that the government has chosen to cite a homophobic hate group gives credibility to the ADF’s extremist and intolerant views,” LGBT+ rights activist Peter Tatchell said.

“This is shocking but perhaps not surprising. The Conservatives have failed to deliver on their promises to reform the Gender Recognition Act and to ban LGBT conversion therapy. On these issues, government views echo those of the ADF.”

UK government used ADF research to back up ‘free speech’ plans.

The research, paid for by ADF and conducted by polling company Survation, found that half of students worried that expressing views about issues they cared about could lead to them being “treated differently” by their peers.

According to the research, 60 per cent of students have never hidden their views on issues that were important to them. Just 15 per cent said they had hidden their political views, while 10 per cent said they had kept their religious views under wraps.

ADF International claimed that the research provided evidence of “campus censorship” at UK universities.

The UK government also relied on surveys from Policy Exchange, a right-wing think thank, in putting together its free speech plans. OpenDemocracy found that the group got a key fact wrong in one of its surveys, telling students that academic Germaine Greer “cancelled her appearance” at an event after a petition was circulated over her anti-trans views.

In fact, Greer did not cancel her appearance, and she subsequently spoke at the event, encountering “only a dozen” protesters.

The government has defended its “war on woke” 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 the plans 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.

Related topics: Alliance Defending Freedom, Free Speech Champion

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