On Tuesday 16th February, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson unveiled new plans to protect free speech at universities in England and Wales, including measures such as the appointment of a “Free Speech Champion” to oversee the enforcement of free speech rules, and for universities to actively promote free speech.
The suggested laws are aimed at preventing “no platforming”, where guest speakers have their offers to speak at an institution rescinded following pressure from stakeholders to do so.
The new plan will place student unions under authority of the Office for Students (OfS), rather than the Charity Commission who they are currently regulated by. While seemingly an administrative action, bringing unions under the OfS means they will have to follow the same rules as universities in promoting free speech, and crucially, can be sued by individuals deemed to have suffered due to no platforming.
Given that student unions are often the major drivers of initiatives to prevent speakers from gaining a platform these changes have the potential to driver sustained changes in university culture.
These plans have not prevented Durham University Student Union from implementing strict rules allowing them the right to appoint an independent chair for the event, or require additional security or stewarding or extra speakers at the event to provide “a balance of perspectives.” Speakers may also be required to submit a copy of their speech to Durham SU for approval in advance.