Free speech and universities

Thomas Durnellon 9 June 2021
Free speech and universities

This piece examines free speech in universities and what the government's new bill means for it going forwards.

Recent Student Hut research found that six in ten students don’t always feel free to express their opinions at university.

This statistic has surprised many people, given institutions’ reputation for being places to share new and unique ideas. If most students feel unable to share their views, it could lead to alternative takes on certain views going unheard.

Nevertheless, viewpoints must be robustly challenged and even censored in instances where they are hateful or detrimental to marginalised groups. Social media has amplified this issue in recent years.

What is freedom of speech?

According to the Oxford Dictionary, freedom of speech is the ‘right to express any opinions in public’. Our research showed that just 1% of students don’t believe in free speech, while 12% don’t agree with this definition. The word ‘any’ is a point of contention within this definition, as some might argue that it encompasses unacceptable views, such as racism, sexism, and homophobia. Whatever your views on free speech are, I hope we can all agree that hate speech and bullying have no place in our society. 

What happens next?

In the recent Queen’s Speech to reopen parliament, a new bill was laid out to ‘place new legal duties on students' unions and universities in England to ensure free speech on campus’. Under the new legislation, universities could be taken to court and fined if a student’s or staff’s right to present their opinions is infringed. With Student Hut research indicating that nine in ten students care about their university’s stance on free speech, it’s intriguing to see how this move will be received.

Young people are passionate about their views on the world. It’s natural to get emotional when faced with opinions we don’t think are right. While more can be done to promote healthy, constructive discussions around certain topics, we must not allow our platforms to be hijacked by those who wish to spread hate.

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Thomas Durnellon 9 June 2021