Tory MP David Davis has brought forward a Bill that would require universities to respect freedom of speech.
The Bill has received praise from pro-lifers, who say universities must be “bastions of free speech”. It follows a number of attacks on the freedom of speech of pro-lifers at UK universities.
The MP for Haltemprice and Howden warned that there is now a “corrosive trend” in universities whereby certain views are prevented from being aired. While certain groups argue that this is to protect from offence, Mr Davis insisted that it is “censorship”.
Speaking in the Commons, he insisted that the principal reason that the UK is a great nation can be encompassed in one word – “freedom”.
Listing a number of different freedoms, including freedom of belief, Mr Davis said one of the most precious of all is freedom of speech.
“It has been fundamental to the development of our culture, our society, our literature, our science and our economy,” he said.
“Indeed, our national wealth today owes more to the free exchange of ideas than to the exchange of goods. Freedom of speech is fundamental to everything we have, everything we are and everything we stand for.”
Noting that Parliament enshrined the right to freedom of speech in law over 300 years ago with the 1689 Bill of Rights, Mr Davis warned that this freedom is now under threat.
“It is under threat in the very institutions where it should be most treasured: our universities,” he said.
“Today, there is a corrosive trend in our universities that aims to prevent anybody from airing ideas that groups disagree with or would be offended by. Let us be clear: it is not about protecting delicate sensibilities from offence; it is about censorship.”
Noting that “nobody is compelled to listen, he said those who do need their sensibilities protected should do so by not attending such speeches.
He said those who “explicitly or indirectly no-platform” others “are not protecting themselves; they are denying others the right to hear those people and even, perhaps, challenge what they say”.
Citing a recent report by the think tank Civitas, which found that over a third of British universities impose severe restrictions on freedom of speech, Mr Davis, backed by several other MPs, said it was no longer acceptable that “cancel culture” be allowed to “obliterate the views of people” it disagrees with rather than challenge them in an open debate.
Mr Davis said his bill would, in effect, make universities responsible for upholding free speech throughout their campuses.
“With rights come responsibilities, so speech that is illegal –incitement to violence, for example – would of course be forbidden, but speech that is merely unpopular with any sector of the university would not be proscribed,” he said.
“Controversial views and the challenging of established positions would not be proscribed.
“Although we may not agree or approve of what is being said, the right to free speech is the foundation stone of our democracy. To stand idly by while that foundation is being eroded, is a dereliction of our duty. The Bill makes it the absolute duty of every university authority to protect that most fundamental of our freedoms: the right to free speech.”
The issue of no-platforming and free speech being obliterated in UK universities has included a number of universities failing to recognise and accept the views of pro-life students.
In recent years student representative bodies at Aberdeen University, Glasgow University, Nottingham University and Strathclyde University have attempted to prevent student pro-life groups being affiliated with the university. However, in each case, the student unions reversed their decision following the groups threatening legal proceedings against them.
The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) welcomed Mr Davis’ Bill and insisted that universities must be “bastions of free speech”.
“Here at SPUC we believe that universities must be bastions of free speech where students can discuss the issue of abortion, one of the central moral problems of our day, freely and without suffering persecution,” a spokesperson said.
“Increasingly, SPUC has seen pro-life students discriminated against in universities. Only last September SPUC shamed Scottish universities in a damning report that showed them being complicit in a toxic culture that silences pro-life students.
“We welcome Mr Davis’ intervention and hope Parliament chooses to defend free speech of all its citizens.”
Right To Life UK said Mr Davis’ Bill is a “welcome respite from the persistent attacks on the freedom of speech of pro-lifers at university”.
“As he rightly points out, those who are most wronged by this censorship are not the speakers themselves but their audience who lose an opportunity to hear an alternative perspective, learn something new, understand their own and their opponents’ beliefs better, and maybe, hear the truth of the pro-life position: that the unborn child should be given the same rights and protections as other human beings are given at any other stage in life,” said Catherine Robinson of Right To Life UK. “Abortion is bad for the baby, it is bad for his or her mother and it is bad for society.
“We need not think of abortion as a battle between competing rights: the right to life of the baby and the right for a woman to choose what to do with her own body, not least because her baby in her womb is not her body. Rather, the pro-life view, which is so seldom heard, is positive about mothers and their babies. Pro-lifers do not believe that society has to choose between one and the other. We can love them both. Is such a view really so terrifying that it simply must be censored?”
Picture: A protester holds placard reading ‘Free speech = reason = progress’. (Simon Gibbs/Wikimedia Commons).