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Good news for pro-life societies? Government may force universities to uphold free speech

28 March 2017


Jo Johnson, the minister for higher education said that all university premises should not be "denied to any individual or body on any grounds connected with their beliefs or views, policy or objective". Image: Getty

In what could be good news for pro-life societies facing censorship, the minister for higher education has written to universities saying they have a legal duty to ensure free speech.

Jo Johnson MP has written to Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, detailing government plans to require universities to protect free speech across their campuses.

The letter, reports the Times, tells universities that they will be compelled to include a clear commitment to freedom of speech in their governance documents to counter the culture of censorship and so-called safe spaces. Mr Johnson said it was the "legal duty" of universities to ensure as far as practicable that freedom of speech is secured for "members, students, employees and visiting speakers". This meant that all university premises should not be "denied to any individual or body on any grounds connected with their beliefs or views, policy or objective".

"Safe-space"

There has been a noticeable rise in "safe-space" policies in recent years, along with the no-platforming of speakers. One case which gained widespread media attention was the attempt to ban feminist Germaine Greer from speaking at Cardiff, after her "offensive" comments on transgenderism. 

Student pro-life societies have been one of the main victims of censorship in universities. A report by the Alliance of Pro-Life Students (APS) last year detailed incidents at Cardiff, Newcastle and Strathclyde. Pro-life students at Strathcyle recently hit the headlines after their Student's Union denied them permission to form a society.

Culture of censorship

Niall O Coinleáin, chief executive officer of the APS, told the Catholic Herald that the proposed moves could have a "positive impact". But he said the "attitude and culture" of students’ unions was a threat to free speech, which manifested itself more broadly than in direct bans. Pro-life activists often face "bureaucracy and delay tactics", O Coinleáin said. For instance, some societies were told they could not receive official status, or funding, because their application forms had been lost or they did not meet the requirements for a society.

"What's needed is for university leaders and academics to call out their peers and students," O Coinleáin said, "and remind students that the only way to win a debate is to challenge, discuss, and defeat wrong ideas."

Examples of a less official culture of denying free speech include a recent attempt to make a Catholic Chaplaincy in Aberdeen take down a 40 Days for Life poster.

Repressive students' unions

It is generally students' unions, not the universities themselves, that deny free speech to opposing viewpoints. Hence, it is significant that Mr Johnson specified that: "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."

Mr Johnson said that all institutions must have a code of practice setting out free speech procedures in connection with hosting meetings.

These codes of conduct should not be allowed to "gather dust", he said, adding: "They are crucial in demonstrating to students that free speech should be at the heart of a higher education community."

In other pro-life student news, the BBC has published an article called 'Pro-life students need a voice': Meet the anti-abortion millennials

News in brief:

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