Gavin Williamson’s fictional free speech crisis

Ben Hutchins on the Education Secretary’s reforms to free speech

Ben Hutchins
27th February 2021
Image: Wikimedia Commons, edited by Joe Molander
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson recently proposed legislation giving independent regulators the task of upholding freedom of speech in universities. Williamson’s appointment of a “free speech champion” is in response to the apparent increase in “censoring” of guest speakers, and the rise of ‘cancel culture’. This accomplishes two things. First, it undermines the work of universities to create an arena of open discussion. Second, it provides a smoke screen for government inadequacies in the education sector during the pandemic.

As Williamson himself states, “universities have a long and proud history of being a space where views may be freely expressed and debated.” This begs the question of why increased monitoring of free speech within universities would be in the government interest. I would suggest this isn’t a matter of free speech at all. Instead, it’s a Conservative movement to ensure right wing views are being voiced in the largely left wing university sphere, of which they’re all too aware. This is further reinforced by The Times reporting “two studies found that less than 0.1 per cent of talks faced any interruption.”

The government has neglected students during the pandemic. It initially planned to let an algorithm decide their A-level results. It left them in the dark about when they can return to their accommodation, for which they weren’t always refunded. Simply put, young people haven’t been a priority. Unfortunately, I fear this proposal, and the promise to address issues surrounding freedom of speech, is a façade. It is designed to cover up government failures in the education sector during the pandemic. Not only that, it is also a weak attempt at redeeming Tories in the eyes of the youth.

Claims of a free speech crisis in the UK grossly undermines the struggles of our global neighbours in India, Hong Kong, and Myanmar. If nothing else, it’s cynical.

Instead, I’d suggest the government should be championing the ‘accuracy of speech’. This might ensure that the growth of so called ‘fake news’ across the Atlantic isn’t repeated here. However, as the battle bus rhetoric showed us, the clamp down on propaganda might be over before it begins.

Rosie Norman’s article arguing that a genuine free speech crisis does exist on university campuses can be read here.

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