By Zoe Fripp
A University Vice Chancellor has claimed that fears about university free speech were generated to “create moral panic.”
Professor Adam Tickell, from Sussex University, delivered his argument to a Parliamentary committee during an inquiry into campus free speech.
The inquiry comes after former Universities Minister, Jo Johnson expressed last year that he felt free speech is limited at some universities. He said that campuses could face fines in the future from the Office for Students if they ban certain groups from contributing to debates because their views could be controversial, often referred to as a ‘no-platform policy’.
Professor Tickell was quoted by the Independent as saying he did not consider there to be a chilling of free speech:
“There’s something of a generic misunderstanding about the nature of what is happening in universities at the moment.
“I can’t see any systemic evidence that free speech is being inhibited. There’s free speech every day in the classrooms and the seminar rooms because that’s how universities thrive.”
Part of Mr Johnson’s argument regarding free speech at universities is that potentially controversial and offensive books are reportedly being removed from university libraries.
In a speech given on Boxing Day 2017, Mr Johnson said: “However well-intentioned, the proliferation of safe spaces, the rise of no-platforming, the removal of ‘offensive’ books from libraries and the drawing up of ever more extensive lists of banned ‘trigger’ words are undermining the principle of free speech in our universities.”
Professor Tickell denied these claims, however, and told the Parliamentary committee: “Not a single library book has been removed from a single shelf in a single university research library in this country to the best knowledge of any of the librarians.”
He did, however, confirm that particularly controversial books, like those written by Anti-Semite David Irving, have been moved to restricted areas in some cases so that copies are still available but not easily accessible.
The Director of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Baroness Amos said that although she hasn’t experienced anyone being ‘no-platformed’ in her 10 years at the university, she did find “a squeezing of our ability to be open, diverse, inclusive”.
She believes this is due to the new Prevent Strategy implemented by the government, intended to stop extremism taking place in Universities.
“There are a whole range of things, how we treat refugees, our visa policy, how Prevent is implemented. All of these things are having an impact on how young people of colour, and Muslims, actually feel in terms of being under additional scrutiny,” she told BBC News.
Edinburgh Student Union president, Patrick Kilduff agreed that the Prevent Scheme is having a potentially damaging effect on university free speech.
He told the BBC: “If we believe that free speech is so that people can hold truth to power, especially marginalised groups, this is stopping marginalised groups, Jewish students, Muslim student, black and minority ethnic students from being able to voice their concerns and host events.”
This isn’t the first time the Prevent Scheme has been accused of restricting free speech, as Just Yorkshire, a charity promoting racial justice and equality told The Guardian that they felt it instilled “fear, suspicion and censorship” in universities.