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10,000+ call for free speech to be protected on campus

  • ADF UK petition to support free speech for students wins significant support on the way to 10 Downing St
  • Campaign calls out university “cancel culture” for causing over a quarter of students to self-censor

LONDON (9 April 2021) – Is there a free speech crisis at UK universities? At least 10,000 members of the public think so and have added their name to a petition addressed to Number 10.

“Freedom of speech is the foundation of every free and democratic society. Of all places, university is where students should be free to debate and explore ideas – especially those with which they disagree. Institutional policies and practices can suggest that even mainstream views are beyond the pale. Today’s censorship on campus can easily become cancel culture in the public square,” said Jeremiah Igunnubole, legal counsel for ADF UK.

The strong response – 10,000 signatures and counting – comes amidst growing evidence of censorship at educational institutions across the country. Recent polling revealed that more than one third of UK students feel their careers would be adversely affected if they express their views about some issues important to them. One in four hide their opinions for fear that they clash with those promoted by the university.

Government action on free speech on campus

Significant steps have already been taken this year towards more robust protection for students with minority views. Three out of the five of the campaign’s asks have already been solidified into formal proposals put forward by the Department for Education on 16 February this year.

The government-backed proposals include the possibility to withhold taxpayer funding to universities which fail to protect free speech.

Another proposal included in the Department for Education’s report is for the Office for Students to actively monitor freedom of speech on university campuses, provide direct support to students who have had their right to freedom of speech denied, and produce an annual report regarding such activity.

“These announcements are timely and come as positive developments – but more must be done, particularly to ensure that university staff receive the training that they need to recognise and uphold the free speech of students and foster an inclusive and diverse learning environment. While we welcome the proposals, we will continue to advocate for these better protections to be put into practice in order to achieve the change promised by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson when he identified the problem in 2020,” said Elizabeth Francis, legal officer for ADF UK, in response to the proposals.

Those backing the campaign hope to see more progress on the key outstanding issues. Namely, that the government publish clear guidance on freedom of speech on campus, and that university staff and student representatives receive comprehensive training on their responsibilities to uphold and protect freedom of speech on campuses as part of their basic induction.

Students increasingly affected by “cancel culture” on campus

Despite lectures and events being forced online by the global pandemic, evidence of censorship has continued to emerge throughout 2021. The pro-life society at Queen’s University Belfast was placed under investigation by the Students’ Union in March for Speaking out against abortion on social media.

Students at Oxford University have also noted that “cancel culture” has stifled free speech and debate. Georgia Clarke, former president of the Oxford Students for Life Society, recalled that the club had been instructed to draw the curtains during a presentation from a female MP about the issue of sex-selective abortion, in case the visual presence of the “pro-life” lecture taking place would offend those looking in from the outside.

Last year Julia Rynkiewicz, a midwifery student from Nottingham University, even faced a fitness-to-practise investigation and suspension from her course because of her pro-life activity on campus. With support from ADF UK, she received a settlement and an apology from the university.

“Putting my life on hold because of an unjust investigation was really difficult, both mentally and emotionally. I’m thankful for the support of ADF UK in challenging the censorship that I faced from my institution. The settlement demonstrates that the university’s treatment of me was wrong, and while I’m happy to move on, I hope that no other student will have to experience what I have. What happened to me risks creating a fear among students to discuss their values and beliefs, but university should be the place where you are invited to do just that,” said Ms. Rynkiewicz.

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