Under the Higher Education Freedom of Speech Bill, announced in the Queen’s Speech this week, new laws will make it easier for academics, students and visiting speakers to take action against universities and student unions and claim compensation if they are gagged.
The move follows instances of “no platforming” on campuses and claims that staff have been penalised for expressing controversial opinions.
Michelle Donelan, who was the first in her family to go to university, told The Yorkshire Post: “We have seen a growing chilling effect and a real threat of censorship in our higher education institutions.
“Universities after all should be and have traditionally been bastions of free speech - hubs of innovation where even controversial and offensive opinions can be aired. That is how we progress society - how we challenge social norms and how we challenge the status quo and how we push the boundaries and evolve.”
But a group representing 12 institutions in the region has warned the decision could add to “unnecessary bureaucracy” for universities.
A spokesman from Yorkshire Universities, said: “Universities are (rightly) already legally required to have a code of practice on free speech and to update this regularly.
“It is important that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is proportionate by focusing on the small number of incidents, while not duplicating existing legislation and creating unnecessary bureaucracy for universities which could have unintended consequences.”
Jo Grady, head of the University and College Union, added: “If the government wants to strengthen freedom of speech and academic freedom, it shouldn’t be policing what can and cannot be said on campus, and encourage university managers to move staff on to secure, permanent contracts.”
But Ms Donelan said the bill would ensure the basic human right to be able to express ourselves freely and take part in “healthy debate”.
She said: "We cannot have a system of censorship if we are going to ensure healthy debate and that boundaries are pushed and modernisation continues in our society."
Under the new law a new Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom will sit on the board of the Office for Students, with responsibility for investigations of breaches of the new freedom of speech duties, including a new complaints scheme for students, staff and visiting speakers who have suffered loss due to a breach.
Ms Donelan added the bill comes in light of examples of where students, staff and invited speakers feel unable to speak out.
She highlighted the incident of when Bristol Students’ Union charged £500 insecurity costs for an event with Israeli ambassador Mark Regev, while charging nothing to safeguard a similar campus talk by his Palestinian counterpart.
"What the bill does is strengthen the existing free speech legislation to bolster it and ensure that there is strong and robust action taken if cases are breached."
Ms Donelan added: "No speaker will ever represent every single student on campus - everybody doesn’t share a uniform opinion, so by taking away a speaker on campus it denies the opportunity for those that did want to hear those opinions.
"It also denies the opportunity for views to be challenged and a proper debate where people can learn and thrash out issues."
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