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MP launches Bill to protect freedom of speech at university

A Conservative MP is advancing a Bill to protect freedom of speech at universities from a “corrosive trend… that aims to prevent anybody from airing ideas that groups disagree with or would be offended by”.

Last week, David Davis MP offered an impassioned defence of the importance of freedom of speech in Britain as “fundamental to the development of our culture, our society, our literature, our science and our economy”.

In his speech on Tuesday 19th January he said:

“[T]oday the cancel culture movement think it is reasonable to obliterate the views of people they disagree with, rather than challenge them in open debate. They are wrong. Why? Because the unwillingness to hear uncomfortable opinion and the refusal of platforms to people they disagree with is damaging to us all”.

“Let us be clear: it is not about protecting delicate sensibilities from offence; it is about censorship”.

In the course of his speech Mr Davis listed a number of public figures from across the political spectrum who have been ‘no-platformed’ (banned from speaking) at universities in Britain including, Peter Hitchens, Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell.

In light of this importance of freedom of speech and Mr Davis’ view of the attacks to which it is subjected, he proposed the Freedom of Speech (Universities) Bill which “would, in effect, make universities responsible for upholding free speech throughout their campuses,” and make it possible to fine universities which fail to uphold its duties in this regard.

The Freedom of Speech (Universities) Bill is a Ten Minute Rule Bill, which are usually used by MPs as a vehicle to raise the profile of an issue in Parliament, as Ten Minute Rule Bills rarely progress to becoming law.

Pro-lifers censored

This Bill will likely be heavily supported by pro-lifers and pro-life students in particular who have experienced discrimination by university authorities of different kinds for many years.

In what appears to have become a pattern at universities across the UK, many pro-life groups have been hindered in their ability to speak freely and enjoy the same benefits as other student societies.

In the last four years, student representative bodies at Aberdeen University, Glasgow University, Nottingham University and Strathclyde University have all tried to prevent student pro-life groups from being affiliated with their university and benefiting from the same privileges available to any other student group. In each of these cases, the student unions had to reverse their decision after the groups threatened legal proceedings against them. Students at Birmingham University also had significant difficulty becoming affiliated with the university but eventually won out against significant opposition.

In 2019, in the first case of its kind, a midwifery student at Nottingham University was suspended and faced possible expulsion from her course after a lecturer raised concerns about her role in the University’s pro-life group. Only after beginning legal action was the University’s decision overturned. Towards the end of 2020, this incident was closed after the university extended an apology to the student and offered compensation for her unjust suspension.

More than a quarter of students self-censor

While pro-lifers will likely welcome Mr Davis’ Bill, the problem of censorship and a culture of intimidation in British universities is widespread and affects students across the political spectrum.

A recent survey undertaken by Survation for legal advocacy group, ADF International, has found that 27% of university students have ‘hidden’ their opinions that they believe may be at odds with those of their university.

The same survey found that 44% of students believe that their lecturers would treat them differently if they made their views known, and that 38% believe that their future careers might be adversely affected if they openly expressed their true opinions.

Right To Life UK spokesperson, Catherine Robinson, said: “David Davis’ Bill is 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. 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?”

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