Education secretary Gavin Williamson has cited a student who was punished for proclaiming that gay people are an “abomination” as his justification for creating the role of university “free speech champion”.
The Tory cabinet minister was accused of making a cynical dog-whistle move to enflame a ‘culture war’ on Tuesday (16 February) as he announced plans to appoint a government-mandated official to “strengthen free speech and academic freedom at universities”.
The as-yet-unnamed official would have the power to investigate and impose sanctions, including financial penalties, on universities deemed to have breached a free speech requirement.
The plans also extend to student unions, which would come under pressure to “ensure that lawful free speech is secured”.
Campaigners fear the move may present significant limits on the ability of universities to tackle hate speech on campus, with Williamson explicitly calling for an end to “no-platform” policies that are frequently deployed against fascist groups and hate preachers.
Gavin Williamson cites student who called gays an ‘abomination’
Justifying his decision, Williamson cited the case of Felix Ngole, a mature student who was expelled from a university social work course in 2016 after he declared to his classmates that God “hates” homosexuality and accused gay people of committing a “wicked” act.
Ngole’s expulsion from the University of Sheffield was later ruled unlawful by the Court of Appeal after the 40-year-old brought a legal challenge backed by anti-LGBT+ pressure group Christian Concern.
In a policy paper, Williamson said: “The rise of intolerance and ‘cancel culture’ upon our campuses is one that directly affects individuals and their livelihoods.
“For every Ngole, Carl or Todd whose story is known, evidence suggests there are many more who have felt they had to keep silent, withheld research or believe they have faced active discrimination in appointment or promotion because of views they have expressed.”
“Todd” refers to Selina Todd, a University of Oxford professor who claimed to be “silenced” after she was uninvited from a feminist conference over her ties to the anti-trans pressure group Woman’s Place UK, while “Carl” refers to a Cambridge academic who was sacked over alleged links with far-right extremists.
Williamson added: “Often a blind eye has been turned to the creeping culture of censorship. A culture has been allowed to develop in which it is seen as acceptable, even virtuous, for an academic to sign an open letter that calls for another to be dismissed or defunded. ”
Education secretary claims ‘gay rights activists’ love plan to protect homophobes
In the same breath as lauding anti-LGBT+ activists, education secretary Gavin Williamson attempted to draw on claims of support from unnamed gay activists.
He said: “In among the oddball, incorrect, challenging or downright offensive ideas will be found those that will transform our society and revolutionise our worldviews.
“By their very nature we cannot know which these are in advance. But there is a reason why many people who experienced first-hand the persecution of the gay rights movement or the oppression of the Soviet Union are at the forefront of those arguing for free speech.
“Those who have never known authorities that were not broadly aligned to their values should be more cautious: today’s orthodoxy can become tomorrow’s oppression, and powers granted today to silence ideological opponents will inevitably be turned against them in future.”
In a linked policy document, Williamson appeared to suggest the policy would preclude the existing campaign to “decolonise” the curriculum by requiring academics to include Black and other ethnic minority viewpoints in their reading lists.
He said: “A head of faculty should not force or pressure academics to… only use set texts that comply with their own viewpoint. This applies equally to contested political ideologies that are not associated with a particular political party or view, such as ‘decolonising the curriculum’.”
‘No evidence’ of free speech crisis on campus
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, vice president for higher education at the National University of Students, said: “Students’ unions are committed to freedom of expression and are the very home of rigorous debate and new ideas.
“There is no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus, and students’ unions are constantly taking positive steps to help facilitate the thousands of events that take place each year.
“At a time when students are facing untold hardship the government would be much better advised to focus on providing the practical support that students desperately need, through maintenance grants, no detriment policies and funding to eradicate digital poverty, rather than attacking the very institutions that have stepped up to fill the gaps in support being offered.
“We recognise this announcement as on opportunity for us to prove once and for all that there is not an extensive problem with freedom of expression across higher education. NUS looks forward to working with the new ‘free speech champion’ to support students’ unions to continue to promote freedom of expression.”