To “guarantee freedom of expression” in universities and temper the effects of the “cancel culture” which would deprive some academics of speech, the British government announced on Tuesday several measures, attracting accusations of interference in the functioning of establishments.
The British government intends to prevent academics from losing their jobs for having expressed controversial positions or that certain speakers invited to conferences, and criticized for these same reasons, are deprogrammed in the face of student pressure.
A “champion of freedom of expression” to investigate
“I am deeply concerned about the crippling effect on campuses of unacceptable censorship and silence,” Education Minister Gavin Williamson said on Tuesday. “We must strengthen freedom of expression in higher education, strengthening existing legal obligations and ensuring that strong action is taken in case of violation.” The government therefore plans to appoint a “champion of freedom of expression” to investigate cases where this freedom has been violated, but also to allow academics who have lost their jobs in similar disputes to possibly claim compensation.
These proposals were hailed by a group of researchers in the conservative daily The Times. “In recent years, too many academics have been marginalized for holding unorthodox views on issues like gender, Brexit and the legacy of the British Empire,” read their open letter. “Stimulating speakers have been overlooked (from debates) and universities often put the ’emotional security’ of students ahead of the freedom to investigate,” they continue.
“There is no evidence of a crisis of freedom of expression on campuses”
“The biggest threat to free speech does not come from staff or students, or from what is called ‘cancel culture’, but from attempts by the government to control what can and cannot be said on the campus, ”criticized Jo Grady, general secretary of the Universities and Colleges union. According to Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice-president of the National Union of Students, “there is no evidence of a crisis in freedom of expression on campuses”.
According to a recent study, 0.06% of conferences and events held at UK universities were interrupted or canceled due to stakeholder opinions. Among the speakers targeted were the pro-Brexit Europhobe Nigel Farage, the BBC journalist Jenni Murray accused of transphobia and the philosopher Roger Scruton, who are accused of Islamophobic and anti-Semitic positions.