The Russell Group, which represents the top 24 universities, said ‘disagreement is a fundamental part of debate’ and pledged to ‘always’ defend free speech.
The body, which includes Oxford and Cambridge, said it already robustly challenges censorship.
Its statement comes in response to government proposals to guard academic freedom, including allowing staff or students to sue universities for compensation for infringements of freedom of speech.
A number of feminists, Conservatives, Christians and other speakers with ‘unfashionable’ views have been blocked from speaking over fears they may cause ‘offence’.
Often the cancellations have been prompted by militant Left-wing student groups launching vicious social media campaigns and storming venues.
Amber’s ‘no-platform’ fury
Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd was ‘no-platformed’ by Oxford students in March last year just 30 minutes before she was due to speak.
She was down to appear at an International Women’s Day event to encourage women into politics but a university society cancelled the event because of her role in the Windrush scandal.
Miss Rudd said it was ‘badly judged and rude’ of the students to pull their invitation, adding: ‘They should stop hiding and start engaging.’
Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd was ‘no-platformed’ by Oxford students in March last year just 30 minutes before she was due to speak
After the furore, the charity to which the student society had been affiliated said it would no longer be associated with it. Oxford University also deregistered the society – UN Women Oxford – and demanded an apology from students.
But the society stood its ground, saying having Miss Rudd speak would offend ethnic minority students ‘and other communities affected by her policies’.
Miss Rudd resigned as Home Secretary in 2018 after at least 83 people living legally in the UK were detained and deported.
The proposals have worried universities as it could see them dragged through the courts and paying out millions in compensation.
Yesterday, Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group, said: ‘Free speech and academic freedom are core values for our universities.
‘Disagreement is a fundamental part of debate and has been key to advancing knowledge and gaining different perspectives on everything from ethics and history to genetics and theoretical physics.
‘Our universities will always champion the importance of free speech, uphold the legal protections already in place and, if government feels it is necessary to enhance protections further, we will work with them to find proportionate solutions.
‘This statement underlines our determination to ensure campuses remain places where students and staff are exposed to a diversity of ideas and views.’
The Government’s proposals were launched in February and legislation to bring them in is expected in the Queen’s Speech next month.
At the time, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson warned against a ‘chilling effect’ of ‘unacceptable silencing and censoring’ on campuses.
Under the plans, universities which fail to protect free speech could also face fines. In addition, the duty to protect free speech would apply directly to student unions, which are often responsible for blocking – or ‘no-platforming’ – speakers.
Yesterday, Mr Williamson said: ‘Free speech underpins our democratic society. I welcome these principles from the Russell Group as a positive step in the right direction.’
The Russell Group’s vow came as it emerged that City, University of London has renamed its prestigious business school over concerns that its old name was linked to the slave trade.
Cass Business School was named after Sir John Cass, a 17th century MP and philanthropist who was also a member of the Royal African Company, which traded in slaves.
Yesterday, the university unveiled the Bayes Business School, which is named after Thomas Bayes, the statistician and theologian, who is buried close to the City campus.
The decision to end the 20-year association with Cass was made last year during the Black Lives Matter protests following the killing of George Floyd.