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THE government has been criticised for its supposed “free speech” plan to tackle the silencing of views on campuses —despite forcing universities to adopt a much criticised definition of anti-semitism that has had a chilling effect on free speech.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson revealed today that he will appoint a new “free-speech champion” and give greater powers to higher-education regulator the Office for Students (OfS) to sanction universities and students’ unions in England that ban speakers or dismiss academics based on their views.
The OfS would have the power to impose fines on institutions if they breach the condition.
Nevertheless, the Education Secretary insists that universities should adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-semitism or face sanctions.
Palestine Solidarity Campaign director Ben Jamal called the plans “astonishingly hypocritical.”
He said: “The IHRA definition has been used to prevent both discussion of the facts of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people as well as calls for action to address that oppression, yet Williamson has threatened to withhold funding from institutions that do not adopt it.
“If Williamson were serious about protecting freedom of speech, he would begin by reading the report recently produced by University College London’s academic board which found the IHRA not fit for purpose and would stop pressuring universities to adopt it.”
Unite Against Fascism (UAF) tweeted: “Anti-fascists have long argued for no platform for fascists on campuses. Hate speech doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Such moves need opposing.”
In a statement, The Russell Group said: “Government should support existing work by universities and students’ unions to defend and maintain freedom of expression on campus rather than adding unnecessary and burdensome bureaucracy.”
University & College Union general secretary Jo Grady said: “It is extraordinary that, in the midst of a global pandemic, the government appears more interested in fighting phantom threats to free speech than taking action to contain the real and present danger which the virus poses to staff and students.
“In reality, the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, nor from so-called ‘cancel culture,’ but from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus.”
Labour accused the government of “manufacturing this debate to distract from their own failures” in education during the pandemic.
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