Bishop John Keenan of Paisley welcomed proposals to punish universities that clamp down on free speech

Bishop John Keenan of Paisley has praised new announcements that could see universities held to account over the banning of pro-life groups, while condemning the censorship of some opinions in public platforms ‘on the pretext of protecting other students’ feelings and wellbeing’.

The bishop’s comments come after an announcement that from April this year a new regulator, the Office for Students, could fine, suspend or deregister universities that do not uphold free speech.

“In one sense I am glad to see this announcement that universities will be held to account when they ban groups, like pro-life, from campus on the pretext of protecting other students’ feelings and wellbeing,” Bishop Keenan said. “It seems that all you have to do nowadays is to talk about your own particular set of victims being hurt by your opponent’s ideas in order to censor any opinions you do not like from the public square.”

”Maybe the mask of this political tactic is beginning to slip and we are returning to the norm that authentic free speech does not set out to victimise anyone and so should not be taken too personally.”

He also noted that he was ‘saddened’ that the announcement suggests universities must now be saved by society from themselves.

“In another sense, though, I am saddened by the announcement which seems to suggest that universities have lost their role as the wise guardians of society and now need society to come in and save them from themselves. Not good!” he added.

Universities minister Jo Johnson has said that universities need to ‘open minds, not close them’ and protect free speech.

Speaking at the Limmud Festival in Birmingham, which celebrates Jewish learning and culture, Mr Johnson said that no-platforming, which sees groups or speakers banned from joining in a debate if their views are deemed offensive or unacceptable, is ‘stifling’ debate.

“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,” he said. “We must not allow this to happen. Young people should have the resilience and confidence to challenge controversial opinions.”

The Office for Students will make sure universities promote ‘freedom of speech within the law,’ Mr Johnson said.

Proposals for the new body, now open for consultation, may see universities being fined, suspended or deregistered if they don’t protect free speech within the law.

“There is already a legal duty on the higher education sector to secure free speech within the law and universities to take these responsibilities very seriously,” chief executive of Universities UK, Alistair Jarvis, said, adding that institutions had a duty of care to student and staff’s safety.

Mr Johnson’s plan was met with approval from vice chancellor of Birmingham University Sir Anthony Seldon, who said universities have a ‘duty’ to ‘open up dialogue,’ but that it is ‘degrading’ the minister had to wade in on the issue. “The universities ­themselves autonomously didn’t get their eggs in order, so the universities minister is having to tell us what to do,” he said. “I think that really is quite a shame for us.”

In 2016, around two-thirds of students felt the National Union of Students (NUS) was right to have a policy of no-platforming, and seeing people or groups on a banned list for having racist or fascist views not allowed to speak at student union premises.

The NUS list features six groups, but unions and student groups can decide their own.

It comes just over a year after pro-life students at Strathclyde University hit international headlines, when they were banned by the university from affiliation to the students’ association, over fears it would violate university ‘safe spaces’—a move the pro-life ­students said denied them freedom of expression.

This article first appeared in the Scottish Catholic Observer