Government’s ‘war on woke’ will leave university campuses facing a legal minefield


“War on woke,” screamed the Daily Mail headline. “PM reveals ‘cancel culture’ victims denied platforms by universities can now seek compensation.”

I could sense some readers reaching for a brown paper bag to stop themselves hyperventilating. Student snowflakes trying to deny us our right to speak good, old-fashioned common sense? We can’t be silenced!

OK, so I’m being facetious. You may have caught publicity about the Government’s new bill championing freedom of speech on university campuses.

It will require students’ unions to take ‘reasonably practical steps’ to ensure free speech at their venues. If an event is cancelled due to protests, the speaker will have the right to seek financial redress.

There will also be a director of free speech and academic freedom, based at the Office for Students (OfS), which regulates the higher education sector. Universities will have to satisfy tough conditions to keep their registration.

You’d be forgiven for thinking we’ve got a major problem with no-platforming on campuses. After all, the Government has warned of a ‘chilling effect of censorship’.

But the OfS’s own figures show just 53 out of 62,000 requests for external speakers at English universities in 2017/18 were rejected by students’ unions or universities. That represented less than 0.1 per cent.

Critics say the legislation could actually result in more censorship as students’ unions shy away from booking anyone with a controversial opinion in case they become liable for compensation.

So why the fuss? Is it merely another example of the Government’s confected culture war on all things ‘woke’?

I got to interview universities minister Michelle Donelan about the bill last week. She told me: “It’s not just about protecting free speech, but promoting a culture of free speech.”



Universities minister Michelle Donelan
Universities minister Michelle Donelan

She cited the case of Selina Todd, a University of Oxford professor dropped from an international women’s festival due to pressure from trans-activists. She has even had to have security at work.

Selina – like author JK Rowling –has faced a furious backlash because of her views on transgender issues. It’s become a flashpoint for debate.

The Government has also highlighted the treatment of another Oxford professor, Nigel Biggar, who said Brits should have ‘pride as well as shame’ in the Empire. Dozens of academics signed a letter denouncing his research.

The proposed new law would protect lecturers if they speak out on issues relating to their specialist field.

But by safeguarding one person’s right to speak, you run the risk of curtailing another person’s right to criticise them. It’s going to be a legal minefield.

Michelle got a taste of what’s to come when she was asked by another journalist whether Holocaust deniers would be protected under the legislation.

If what they say is considered hate speech or an incitement to violence, then no. But otherwise, anything that’s lawful is in scope.

So should we be defending all academic freedoms? What about the unsavoury views of Bristol academic David Miller, who has repeatedly courted controversy with his comments on Zionism and Jews?

He’s also questioned whether Russian agents were behind the Skripal poisonings in Salisbury and claimed Assad’s regime was not responsible for chemical attacks in Syria.



Kathie is the Education Reporter for StokeonTrentLive.

You can follow her on Facebook here and Twitter here.

You can contact Kathie at katherine.mcinnes@reachplc.com

Freedom of speech is fine when we’re defending like-minded individuals. But if we disagree, it can be deeply uncomfortable.

The most worrying threats to freedom are the ones rarely mentioned. Take students from Hong Kong, who live in fear of being monitored by the Chinese state while studying in the UK. Some even keep quiet in class so their words can’t be used against them.

But the biggest problem with the Government’s approach is its wild inconsistency. On the one hand, ministers are championing freedom of speech in universities.

On the other, they are censoring the National Trust for pointing out its properties have historic links to the slave trade and colonialism.

And what about another Government bill which is proposing to curtail people’s right to protest? You couldn’t make it up.



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