I welcome this Bill which proposes stronger protections for free speech at universities and imposes a duty on higher education providers to take ‘reasonably practicable’ steps to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is protected for members, students, employees and visiting speakers.
I would, however, urge the Minister, my Hon. Friend for Chippenham, to consider strengthening this safeguard to ‘necessary steps’ to ensure freedom of speech is protected.
Importantly, student unions will be subject to an obligation to secure free speech and will not be able to withhold affiliations from student societies on the grounds that they ‘disapprove of their views’.
It is imperative to protect diversity of thought and opinion. Academic freedom and freedom of speech are vital tools in a democracy and in maintaining and protecting our democracy. All too often we hear of student unions or academics boycotting someone or something because they do not agree with another’s opinion.
They talk the talk of freedom of speech and tolerance, but show a complete lack of tolerance, academic thought and respect for the freedoms that many before us, over our long democratic history, have fought so hard for. Freedom of expression, free speech, is a fundamental part of being British; we have fought for these freedoms and we must protect them for future generations.
This bullying ‘cancel culture’ which stretches beyond universities has to stop; it deliberately creates division, undermines our shared sense of belonging and suppresses our traditional liberties.
Academic freedom matters - it must push boundaries. Self-censorship restricts this. Academics, students and so on cannot be fearful of openly airing lawful views and publishing academic work; they should not be discriminated against when it comes to grants, jobs because they hold a view which is not considered ‘politically correct’.
It is necessary to bring in this legislation to protect these freedoms and promote academic excellence at our universities. We must use our intelligence to explore opinion and debate – to formulate an argument rather than accuse someone we do not agree with as ‘phobic’ or ‘racist’ - or ‘Tory Scum’. This is inherently lazy and deprives young people and our institutions of what they should do best - free intellectual exchange within a culture of curiosity without fear or favour.
Free intellectual exchange should be challenging and make us reflect on our own views. It is no good at all to our democracy to seek out only those with a similar opinion to ourselves. There has to be critical discourse for ideas to be better understood, challenged and then perhaps changed.
It is right to fight for academic freedom and freedom of speech in our universities and on our campuses because we are fighting for freedom from oppression to ultimately protect our democracy. It is right to fight against this cancel culture, this extreme political correctness, so that our academics and students can pursue the truth without fear or favour, which will ultimately benefit the common good.
Our democratic freedoms depend on us all being courageous in thought, word and deed and to this end, I support this Bill.