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Jo Johnson Says Universities Will Be Compelled To Protect Free Speech Under New Government Plans

The rules will apply to student unions too.

21/03/2017 11:41 | Updated 21 March 2017

Universities will be compelled to protect free speech on campus and in student unions under new government plans, it has been reported. 

According to The Times, higher education minister Jo Johnson has written to universities telling them it is their “legal duty” to ensure students, staff and visitors are not barred entry based on their “beliefs, or views, policy or objectives”. 

He wants universities to make a clear commitment to free speech in their governance documents. 

Johnson’s call follows a growing trend of “no-platforming” at UK universities. A study into free speech released earlier this year found that a staggering 94% of institutions now censor their students.

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Under new government rules universities will be compelled to protect free speech, Jo Johnson said in a letter

In the letter seen by the newspaper to Universities UK chief executive Nicola Dandridge, the Tory MP said that all universities should have a code of practice regarding free speech. 

“They are crucial in demonstrating to students that free speech should be at the heart of a higher education community,” he said. 

“It is important to note that the duty extends to both the premises of the university and premises occupied by the students’ unions, even when they are not part of the university premises,” Johnson added.  

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Controversial speakers such as former EDL leader Tommy Robinson have been banned from giving talks on many UK campuses 

The changes could be introduced under the Higher Education and Research Bill. Subject to consultation, this could allow the government to impose “public interest” principles on universities. 

Johnson said: “As part of this, the government proposes to raise the issue of freedom of speech, with a view to ensuring that a principle underscoring the importance of free speech in higher education is given due consideration.”

Campus censorship has repeatedly hit the headlines in recent years. 

In November, the student union at City, University of London - home to one of Britain’s top journalism schools - sparked outrage when it voted to ban The Daily Mail, The Sun and The Daily Express on campus, claiming the tabloids “stir up racial hatred”. 

While the banning of red top newspapers has spread to other institutions, including Queen Mary University London and Plymouth, the “no-platforming” of controversial speakers has become common too.  

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Cardiff University students prompted a row when they launched a campaign to bar Germaine Greer from speaking on campus

Earlier this month, Cardiff Metropolitan University was accused of censorship over its gender neutral language policy, which told students and staff they could face “disciplinary procedures” if they used terms such as “housewife”, “mankind” and “waitress”. 

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