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New powers introduced to protect freedom of speech in universities

Higher Education Minister Jo Johnson has announced that from April the Office for Students, a new regulatory body for higher education institutions in England, will have the power to fine universities that fail to protect free speech. Mr Johnson stated that the new measures will ensure that universities remain places where freedom of speech within the law is promoted. Humanists UK, which gave both written and oral evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) investigation into free speech in universities in November, is a strong exponent of the right to free speech, including the criticism of religious and non-religious beliefs.

These new powers mean that the Office for Students will be able to issue fines or suspend institutions if they or their associated students’ unions operate ‘no platforming’ policies that prevent individuals with controversial but not hateful views from being able to speak at universities. The Department for Education will also require all publicly funded universities to show that their governance is consistent with the principles of free speech, as a condition of registration with the Office for Students.

Speaking at the Limmud festival in Birmingham, Mr Johnson stated that ‘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.’ Humanists UK and Humanist Students’ submission to the JCHR detailed several incidents where Humanist Students-affiliated societies were unjustly censored or prevented from holding events because their activities were deemed to be ‘offensive’. In each case, after Humanists UK and its lawyers got involved, the university or students’ union later withdraw their complaints and apologised to the students.

Humanists UK Campaigns Officer Rachel Taggart-Ryan commented, ‘Under the Education Act 1986 universities have a legal duty to take steps to protect freedom of speech on campus. We are pleased that the Government is to introduce measures to compel universities to uphold this duty. In addition to these measures, Humanists UK calls upon the Government to issue guidance to universities and students’ unions clearly setting out the narrow range of circumstances in which limiting free speech can be justified within the law and making clear that criticism or ridicule of religious beliefs is not one of those circumstances.’


For further comment or information contact Rachel Taggart-Ryan, Campaigns Officer at or 020 7324 3065.

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaign work on free speech on campuses:

Read more about Humanists UK and Humanist Students’ submission to the JCHR:

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.

Humanist Students recently announced the offer of free Humanists UK membership to those currently enrolled in higher education:

Humanists UK recently changed its name from the British Humanist Association:

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