In May 2021, the UK Government introduced The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, through which universities and student unions in England can be fined if it is deemed they have failed to uphold freedom of speech. The legislation, which follows several ‘de-platforming’ incidents wherein certain individuals have been barred from speaking on campuses, aims to “help stamp out unlawful ‘silencing.’” The latest research by Redfield & Wilton Strategies finds that while many Britons agree that universities should not have the right to ‘de-platform’ speakers, public opinion is more split when it comes to imposing financial penalties if they do.
Half (52%) of respondents say universities should not be allowed to prevent speakers with views that may be deemed offensive by some from speaking at events on campus, whereas a quarter (24%) says universities should be allowed to do so. The remaining quarter (25%) is unsure.
At 31%, the 18 to 24 age group—the most likely to be currently attending university—sees the greatest proportion of respondents saying universities should be allowed to prevent individuals from speaking on campus if they hold views that may be deemed offensive. That being said, a plurality (45%) of 18-to-24-year-olds believe universities should not be allowed to bar speakers. In fact, the only demographic in which a plurality holds the view that universities should be allowed to block certain speakers is Londoners, 43% of whom say universities should have this right.
Britons who voted Liberal Democrat in the 2019 General Election (68%) are the most likely to say universities should not be allowed to prevent speakers with views deemed offensive by some from speaking at campus events, compared to 57% of Conservative voters and 40% of Labour voters. Meanwhile, a considerable third (33%) of 2019 Labour voters say universities should be permitted to do so.
Although there is significant agreement that universities should not be able to dictate whether individuals with views that may be deemed offensive can or cannot speak on campus, views on how to penalise universities if they do stop certain individuals from doing so are more split. In fact, 36% say universities should not be fined and 35% say universities should be fined for banning speakers from addressing events on campus. Reflecting its complex nature, a substantial 28% don’t know how they feel about the topic.
This question garners responses with clear age and political divisions, with those aged 45 to 54 (41%) and 65 and over (40%), along with those who voted Conservative in 2019 (45%), being the most likely to say universities should be fined for banning speakers. By contrast, a majority (55%) of 18-to-24-year-olds and a plurality of Labour voters (37%) do not believe universities should be fined in this case. Interestingly, though Liberal Democrat voters are the most likely to say universities should not be allowed to bar certain speakers, a plurality (41%) does not believe they should be fined for doing so, suggesting that Liberal Democrat voters may have mixed feelings on the recent legislation.
The controversy surrounding free speech on university campuses is part of an age-old debate on freedom of speech, and as such, it is unlikely to be settled any time soon. The British public’s current positions on the topic suggest that the purpose behind the Government’s new bill—to prevent universities from barring particular speakers—is supported at least in theory by many, though the means through which it aims to accomplish this—the threat or imposition of fines—may be less popular.