In today’s edition of the The Times Red Box, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, congratulated Cambridge University for its decision on free speech.
Cambridge University is to be congratulated for its decision this week on free speech. More than a victory for common sense, it touches something far deeper. Freedom of speech, thought or expression is one of the most prized aspects of a civilised society. It demonstrates that a country is mature and sufficiently at ease with itself to absorb a host of opinions.
To appreciate how precious freedom of speech is, listen to those who have been denied it.
Freedom of speech is one of those fundamentals that universities are looked towards to uphold and protect. Every student who sets off for Nottingham, Portsmouth or Cambridge should know that they are going to hear things that may sound outlandish or provocative, or make them uncomfortable. That’s one of the reasons for going. Young people need to make up their own minds, and learn to think independently.
Higher education is not about being spoon-fed lines and parroting them back to pass an exam. It is about weighing facts, challenging ideas and perhaps eventually coming up with a new world view.
Even more important, higher education gives the chance to hear a variety of beliefs and philosophies. It’s one of the best ways to encourage a respect for diversity and cultivate an open and inquiring mind.
An extensive regulatory framework governs freedom of speech in higher education, and ensures that legal limits to free speech are respected. Education providers are obliged to take “all reasonably practicable steps” to secure freedom of speech “within the law”.
The principle of free speech, with specific limits, is enshrined in law. This is not to say that every speaker’s views are equally worthy. What it does acknowledge is that everyone should be free to have their say. It does not fear those who are eccentric or unorthodox or allow dissenting voices to be silenced.
Preserving free speech — by law if necessary — is in the Conservatives’ manifesto. The government has also been urging university leaders to do more to support it. I wrote to vice-chancellors this year to ask that they continue to champion free speech and the government is considering options for how to strengthen it further.
Students’ unions and providers should promote and enable free speech and must be expected to act on the guidance given to them. But it is only by talking and listening to one another that we will understand one another.
What must not happen is that universities decide whose words will be heard and handed down to the next generation and whose will be unheard.