ACCUSATIONS that universities shut down free speech on campus because of a fear of controversy have been dismissed by a leading academic.

Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli, the principal of Glasgow University, said free speech was of critical importance to the functioning of higher education.

However, he said institutions also had a duty to balance the right to free speech with respect for the views of an increasingly diverse student population.

The intervention comes at a time when politicians have questioned the willingness of universities to uphold free speech over issues such as abortion, transgender, Islamophobia and the Israel-Palestine conflict.

In his address to commemorate the founding of Glasgow University in 1451 Sir Anton said: “Over recent times there’s been a lot of interest in the apparent abuse or demise of free speech within and around universities.

“On the one hand the sector has been accused of bias by entering some political debates, such as Brexit. On the other we have been equally accused of shutting down free speech on our campuses.

“We were, apparently, rather quick to apply no platform or safe spaces policies to manage the alleged threat of controversial individuals coming on campus to speak.”

Sir Anton said a crucial aspect of the debate was the legal framework universities were operating in which prohibits speech which incites murder, violence or terrorism, stirs up racial hatred or hatred to other groups, causes fear of violence, alarm or distress, constitutes harassment or is defamatory or malicious.

He said: “Far from university communities being counter to free speech or free expression, I believe they often are an enabler, a catalyst, for mind expanding, mind transforming dialogues of discovery.

“We never shy away from issues that are challenging or debates that are controversial. To do so risks either stifling arguments or closing down conversations. and to do that would be an abrogation of our responsibility as universities.

“But we need to be places where disagreement can happen, but happens in a way that is respectful to all parts of our community. We need to be a place that upholds free speech, underpinned by an environment that celebrates difference.”

In March, Westminster’s Joint Committee on Human Rights raised concerns over barriers to free speech blaming bureaucracy and restrictive guidance imposed on those organising student events.

Its report also said the practice of banning certain groups, known as “no platforming”, and safe-space policies to protect vulnerable groups were being used by some to prevent the free speech of others whose views they disagreed with.

And in January, one of Scotland’s most prominent Catholics, Bishop John Keenan of Paisley, warned that stifling free speech at student campuses suggested “universities have lost their role as wise guardians of society”.