Gavin Williamson – 2021 Statement on Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom

The statement made by Gavin Williamson, the Secretary of State for Education, in the House of Commons on 22 February 2021.

Last week the Department for Education laid the “Higher education: free speech and academic freedom” Command Paper in Parliament and then published it more widely. This sets out how Government propose to deliver on their 2019 manifesto commitment to strengthen academic freedom and freedom of speech in universities in England.

This Government have always been clear in their commitment to strengthen academic freedom and ensure that our universities are places where free speech can thrive. Without action to counter attempts to discourage or even silence unpopular views, intellectual life on campus for both staff and students may be unfairly narrowed and diminished.

Despite protections which are currently in place, a body of research has shown evidence of a “chilling effect” on students and staff, who report feeling unable freely to express their views within the law without fear of repercussion. This is emphasised by a small number of high-profile incidents in which staff or students have been threatened with negative consequences, sometimes successfully, confirming that the fear of repercussion is not always unfounded. The Government therefore consider it necessary to take action, including by amending legislation.

This Command Paper identifies key limitations of the current framework and proposes a clear way forward, to clarify and strengthen the legislation on freedom of speech and academic freedom, and thereby ensure that the aforementioned “chilling effect” is effectively dealt with. Freedom of speech and academic freedom are fundamental principles of university life, and it is our duty to afford the necessary protections where these are found to be lacking. The Government intend to take action after carefully considering and discussing the options laid out in this paper with stakeholders. We will announce further steps in due course.

I will place copies of the Command Paper in the Libraries of both Houses.