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Conservative culture war intensifies with 'free-speech champion'

The government is set to appoint a ‘free-speech champion’ for universities as part of the Conservative culture war against the ‘woke agenda’. 

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Image Credit: The Telegraph

This week, education minister Gavin Williamson will reveal plans to preserve free speech in universities. A ‘free-speech champion’ will be implemented, alongside new laws, to prevent restrictions of free speech by universities or students unions, and defend employees affected by disciplinary measures for their views.

Williams said this regarding the new plans:

"Free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views and cultivate an open mind.

But I am deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring. That is why we must strengthen free speech in higher education, by bolstering the existing legal duties and ensuring strong, robust action is taken if these are breached."

The new measures are an advancement of the Government’s ‘war on woke’; a response to events such as the heightened public consciousness of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the resulting reevaluation of the UK’s colonial past. A source from the Department for Education told the Telegraph that campuses are experiencing “unacceptable silencing and censoring”, with the new plans designed specifically to target the ‘woke agenda’ amongst students.

Governmental sources claim that the plans will ensure that universities remain as "places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views and cultivate an open, inquiring mind". However, the measures have not been revealed without backlash. Using evidence from a 2018 parliamentary human rights report, The Guardian has argued that there is "little evidence" that the barring of extreme rightwing views from campuses is a "significant problem". They emphasise that overall, the 2018 committee “did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested”.

In response to the plans, Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS vice-president for Higher Education expressed that: “There is no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus, and students’ unions are constantly taking positive steps to help facilitate the thousands of events that take place each year.”

She emphasised that the government would be “much better advised to focus on providing the practical support that students desperately need”, such as maintenance grants and no detriment policies. However, she ultimately underlined that NUS will work cooperatively with the Free Speech Champion to “support students’ unions to continue to promote freedom of expression.”

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