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UK plan for campus free speech champion draws praise, alarm

February 16, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this file photo dated Monday, Sept. 2, 2019, Britain's Education Secretary Gavin Williamson arrives for a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London. Williamson said Tuesday Feb. 16, 2021, he intends to appoint a “free speech champion” for universities to protect against attempts to silence academics and speakers with unpopular opinions, to strengthen free speech in higher education.(AP Photo/Matt Dunham, FILE)
FILE - In this file photo dated Monday, Sept. 2, 2019, Britain's Education Secretary Gavin Williamson arrives for a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London. Williamson said Tuesday Feb. 16, 2021, he intends to appoint a “free speech champion” for universities to protect against attempts to silence academics and speakers with unpopular opinions, to strengthen free speech in higher education.(AP Photo/Matt Dunham, FILE)

LONDON (AP) — The British government said Tuesday it will appoint a “free speech champion” for universities to protect against attempts to silence academics and speakers with unpopular opinions.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said he was “deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring.”

“That is why we must strengthen free speech in higher education, by bolstering the existing legal duties and ensuring strong, robust action is taken if these are breached,” he said.

The new champion will investigate allegations of infringement of free speech, such as the dismissal of academics or the “no platforming” of invited speakers. The Conservative government also plans to give a regulator, the Office for Students, powers to fine universities that breach a requirement to support free speech.

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Academics and others who are expelled, dismissed or demoted for their views will be able to seek compensation through the courts under the plans, which have not yet been turned into law.

In recent years, controversies over free speech on U.K. campuses have erupted over invitations to right-wing politicians and authors, and to speakers with contentious views on the rights of transgender people.

Critics accuse the government of playing populist politics rather than supporting free speech.

Peter Tatchell, a veteran gay rights and human rights activist, said the government was “interested in using hot-button culture issues as a way of driving a wedge and securing political advantage, and I fear that this is a cynical part of that strategy.”

Opponents also accuse the government of putting pressure on education and heritage organizations not to highlight the negative aspects of Britain’s history. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other senior ministers have opposed the removal of statues to historical figures associated with slavery and the British Empire.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden has written to government-funded museums and historic sites to warn them against removing statues, saying they “should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics.”

The University and College Union, which represents academics, accused the government of “fighting phantom threats.”

“In reality the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, or from so-called ‘cancel culture’, but from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus, and a failure to get to grips with the endemic job insecurity and managerialist approaches which mean academics are less able to speak truth to power,” said general secretary Jo Grady.