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Free speech on campus: could US violence spread to British universities?

Nov 7, 2017 by

With Jo Johnson threatening fines unless universities guarantee freedom of speech, UK academics are looking warily at the far-right turmoil in America

Joanna Walters –“This idea might be comical if it were not so dangerous,” says Dr Cheryl Hudson, a lecturer in US political history at the University of Liverpool, of the higher education minister, Jo Johnson’s, recent demand that all British universities guarantee free speech on campus or face fines.

Johnson’s move followed much-publicised attempts by student unions and campaigners to ban high-profile speakers — including the feminist writer Germaine Greer and the former Ukip leader Nigel Farage — from speaking at universities because of their controversial opinions.

A few days later came the revelation that Chris Heaton-Harris, a Tory MP and whip, had written to all universities asking for details of what they were teaching about Brexit.

As controversial as these developments are, they seem less alarming if you compared them to America, where rightwing extremist provocateurs are suing universities to be allowed to spout white supremacist rhetoric on campus in the name of free speech.

Last month, the University of Florida spent $600,000 (about £460,000) on security so that a white nationalist, Richard Spencer, could safely give one of his speeches espousing the creation of a white “ethno-state”, accompanied by supporters sporting swastikas.

The university had tried to ban Spencer, but backed down when he threatened a lawsuit based on the first amendment to the US constitution protecting his right to free speech. Protests against him on campus were vociferous. Later that day, three men shouted “Hail Hitler!” and fired a gun at protesters; they were arrested by Gainesville police and charged with attempted homicide.

Spencer’s supporters are currently suing Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State universities after they denied him a venue on campus, citing public safety concerns.

The incident at the University of Florida followed violence at the University of California at Berkeley in February over Milo Yiannopoulos, an “alt-right” agitator and former Breitbart senior editor invited to speak there.

Source: Free speech on campus: could US violence spread to British universities? | Education | The Guardian

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