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Government ‘exaggerating threat to freedom of speech to push through new laws’, says university union

The authorities has been accused of “over-exaggerating” the threat to free speech on campus so as to push through new legal guidelines by a university union.

New laws shall be launched in parliament for the primary time on Wednesday, which the training secretary mentioned would sort out “the chilling effect of censorship on campus once and for all”. 

It would place new necessities on universities and scholar unions and permit a regulator ready to challenge fines for any breaches, amongst different measures. 

But the transfer has confronted backlash from a union representing 1000’s of university employees within the UK who’ve been left “incredibly concerned” by the transfer.

Jo Grady, the final secretary of the Union and College Union (UCU), instructed BBC Radio 4’sToday programme. “We think that this bill itself is a serious threat to freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus.”

She added: “We assume that it’s an extremely over-exaggeration of points so as to push this through.”

When asked about former home secretary, Amber Rudd, having an invitation to speak at an event at Oxford University retracted due to the Windrush scandal, Ms Grady said there were “far more serious” threats to free speech among university workers.

She claimed staff were facing job losses “because their research agendas don’t align with what the university wants” and others on precarious contracts having to “to align their research agendas, again, with what university wants”

“These are genuine threats, not people who already have very privileged jobs not being allowed to speak in an event 30 minutes before,” Ms Grady said.

UK universities have said they share the government’s commitment to free speech on campus – but said any new measures must be “proportionate”.

A spokesperson for the Russell Group, a group of leading universities, said:  “Our universities have always protected the right to have free and open discussion of challenging or controversial ideas.” 

They added: “It is vital that any further changes or additions to an already complex system are proportionate, protect university autonomy and avoid creating unnecessary or burdensome bureaucracy.”

Last month, the group vowed to protect free speech on campus, adding their institutions already facilitate “free and frank intellectual exchanges”.

A spokesperson for Universities UK – which represents 140 institutions – said: “It is necessary that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is proportionate – specializing in the small quantity of incidents – and doesn’t duplicate current laws or create pointless forms for universities which may have unintended penalties.”

On Tuesday, the Queen’s Speech set out government plans to introduce new laws on freedom of speech at universities.

The Department for Education (DfE) said registered universities and colleges in England will be required to promote and defend freedom of speech and academic freedom under the proposed legislation.

For the first time, students’ unions at universities would be required to take steps to secure lawful freedom of speech for members and visiting speakers under the measures in the Bill.

This follows controversy over cases of the “no-platforming” of speakers – where they are refused a platform to speak – on campuses, including of Ms Rudd.

The new Bill also covers the creation of a free speech champion at regulator the Office for Students (OfS), with the power to issue sanctions.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said: “It is a basic human right to be able to express ourselves freely and take part in rigorous debate.

“Our authorized system permits us to articulate views which others could disagree with so long as they don’t meet the edge of hate speech or inciting violence. This have to be defended, nowhere extra so than inside our world-renowned universities.”

He added: “Holding universities to account on the importance of freedom of speech in higher education is a milestone moment in fulfilling our manifesto commitment, protecting the rights of students and academics, and countering the chilling effect of censorship on campus once and for all.”

In a press release, Jo Grady from the UCU mentioned the federal government was “using freedom of speech as a Trojan horse for increasing its power and control over staff and students”.

An OfS spokesperson mentioned: “Free speech and academic freedom are essential elements to effective teaching and research.

“Universities and faculties have authorized duties to shield each free speech and educational freedom, and their compliance with these obligations varieties an necessary half of their situations of registration with the OfS.

They added: “We will be certain that the modifications that consequence from proposals expressed in [the] Queen’s Speech reinforce these obligations and embed the widest definition of free speech throughout the legislation.”

Additional reporting by Press Association

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