Jo Johnson to use Limmud speech for pledge on free speech at universities

Universities minister to promise that new regulator will take tougher stance on 'no platforming'


Jo Johnson is to use his speech at the Limmud festival later today to stress the importance of upholding free speech, and to reiterate that UK institutions of learning could face fines for failing to do so.

In his speech this afternoon, the Minister for Universities and Science will stress the importance of universities being places that “open minds, not close them”, challenging the rise in “no platforming” measures on UK campuses.

In their original form, such measures were intended to prevent talks given by far-right groups, However, in recent years, the use of “no platforming” boycotts has been extended by some student unions to include a range of other issues, including speakers who support Israel. 

In October, a new higher education regulator was unveiled – the Office for Students. Under proposals submitted by Mr Johnson, universities could face a variety of penalties from the new body – including fines, suspension or deregulation – for failing to uphold free speech.

“Universities should be places that open minds not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged," Mr Johnson will tell the audience at Limmud. 

“In universities in America and worryingly in the UK, we have seen examples of groups seeking to stifle those who do not agree with them.

“We must not allow this to happen. Young people should have the resilience and confidence to challenge controversial opinions and take part in open, frank and rigorous discussions. That is why the new regulator, the Office for Students, will go even further to ensure that universities promote freedom of speech within the law.”

However, Mr Johnson will also discuss the need for universities to prevent hatred, extremism or racism, saying that “a racist or antisemitic environment is by definition an illiberal one that is completely in opposition to the liberal tradition of our universities”.

Welcoming the move, Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies, who is attending Limmud, said: “Over the last couple of years, Jewish students have been subjected to the most outrageous abuse and intimidation when seeking to discuss Israel, including when they are discussing the routes to peace. Notorious incidents occurred at King's College London and University College London. Regrettably universities often find themselves floundering, unable or unwilling to provide adequate protection for these events. This must urgently change.

“We are pleased to note that the minister will note exceptions for where there is a risk of extremism or hatred, including antisemitism. To aid this, we would urge universities to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism which the government adopted last year.”

The Union of Jewish Students also welcomed Mr Johnson's remarks but cautioned that there was a role for no-platforming on campus.

UJS campaigns manager Liron Velleman said: "No-platform policies for those who continue to threaten or incite violence continue to be an important tool against fascism used by the National Union of Students, students unions and student groups. Additionally, we have welcomed the increased focus in recent years on a duty of care for students and the introduction of external speaker guidelines by many institutions.

"Freedom of speech on campus is a fundamental democratic right but there continues to be a role for clear and precise no-platform policies to be used in the fight against violent racism and other forms of discrimination."

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