Burnley MP Antony Higginbotham column: Freedom of speech needs protecting

The right to free speech underpins our whole democratic system and so this week there has been a focus on protecting people’s right to speak freely on University campuses; something which sadly over the past few years has come under direct attack.
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We all understand the limitations placed on hate speech which is threatening, abusive or insulting but the move towards silencing and censoring speakers that those in academia or student unions disagree with politically is a worrying trend that needs to be reversed.

Every one of us hold opinions about a whole range of topics and our ability to speak about these with others, in a respectful way, is what enables our democratic system to properly function. And this is only too true in our educational settings, where students find themselves exposed, some for the very first time, to differing opinions on society and culture.

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This is what forms the basis of their education and shapes them in later life, so being able to hear different viewpoints, as opposed to living in an echo chamber, is important.

Burnley MP Antony HigginbothamBurnley MP Antony Higginbotham
Burnley MP Antony Higginbotham

Our University students have the right to hear different opinions, however unpalatable they may seem to some on the fringes of political discourse. Because it is only through this medium that we can ensure that students are fully informed about the world around them, able to challenge, debate and learn.

Take for example the silencing of Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev by a number of UK universities over the past few years.

I’ve spoken with him personally; he’s a friend and ally of the UK who promotes liberal western values of freedom, democracy and human rights. But on more than one occasion he has faced censorship by a small number of student activists who deem his contribution unworthy.

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And he is not the only one. This attempt to silence those with who we disagree is deeply unhealthy in an open and democratic system.

Because free speech is what informs us all about the world around us; and is fundamental in our understanding of other people’s struggles.

That’s why I am fully supportive of the moves to strengthen freedom of expression on University campuses as announced by the Education Secretary this week.

The proposed measures deliver on a manifesto commitment to place a new free speech condition on higher education providers in order to be registered in England and gain access to public funding. The regulator, the Office for Students, would have the power to impose sanctions, including financial penalties for breaches of the condition.

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And the strengthened legal duties would also extend to Students Unions, which for the first time would have to take steps to ensure that lawful free speech is secured for their members and others, including visiting speakers.

Under these new plans, the Education Secretary will also be appointing a new Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion to investigate potential infringements, such as no-platforming speakers or the dismissal of academics purely for their viewpoints. This will mean higher education providers would be legally required to actively promote free speech, enabling freedom of expression to be protected in all of our educational establishments.

The registration condition would work alongside strengthened legal duties on free speech and academic freedom and the Champion would be able to recommend that the Office for Students imposes fines for those who actively seek to close down healthy debate.

Free speech should be always defended, not least due to the benefits it brings but also as it allows students to fully express themselves freely, challenge views and cultivate an open mind.

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Turning to the vaccine roll-out, incredible progress continues to be made and as of Wednesday more than 15.5 million doses having been administered across the UK, meaning that everybody in the top four priority groups have now been offered vaccine protection.

That’s enabled us to start the next phase of our vaccination programme, with people aged 65-69 and the clinically vulnerable now being offered the jab. And this is in anticipation of the Prime Minister’s announcement due on Monday where he will set out our exit strategy.

All this is possible due to the hard work of everybody involved, including those here in Burnley and Padiham and I pay tribute to all those assisting in the national effort.