ONE of Scotland’s most prominent Catholics has warned that stifling free speech at student campuses suggests “universities have lost their role as wise guardians of society”.

Bishop John Keenan of Paisley revealed his support for new policies in England that would fine, suspend or de-register universities that fail to uphold free speech if their student unions do not give a platform to controversial speakers such as Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell.

In Scotland over recent years, there have been examples of student pro-life campaigners being denied access to university funds and protests against right-wing commentators on campuses.

Speaking about the UK Government's Boxing Day statement on 'no platforming', Bishop Keenan said: "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.”

Herald View: Platforms should be for free speech, not suppressing opinion

"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.”

Speaking in the Scottish Catholic Observer, he added: "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!”

Higher education minister Jo Johnson said that from April a new universities regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), could punish universities that do not uphold free speech.

The OfS is the new government-approved regulatory and competition authority for the higher education sector in England and will not apply to Scotland.

The Bishop's come amid growing concerns among some groups that universities have become too politically correct, stifling free speech through banning speakers that may cause offence.

In 2016, a row erupted at the University of Strathclyde after its students' association refused to grant an anti-abortion group official status, denying it access to funding and facilities.

The university's student association defended its decision at the time, saying anti-choice groups would directly contravene equal opportunities policy by giving them a platform to harass students.

Herald View: Platforms should be for free speech, not suppressing opinion

In March, students at the University of Glasgow protested incendiary far-right speaker Milo Yiannopoulos' nomination for Rector.

Yiannopoulos, a key figure in the"alt-right" movement, has previously been banned from Twitter for expressing racist and misogynist views and had called for a ban on the university's Muslim group.

Luke Humberstone, president of student body NUS Scotland, which operates a 'no platform policy' against organisations it deems racist or fascist – such as the British National Party, said it was "concerned at the UK Government's direction of travel" on the issue.

Mr Humberstone said: "NUS Scotland is committed to freedom of speech, and ensuring university campuses are places in which every student can feel free from fear of persecution.

"No platforming policies, which target a limited number of organisations who are known to spread hate and use intimidation as a tool to do so, play a vital role in delivering this."

Individual student unions may have different policies on so-called 'no platforming', each voted for by students on their campuses.

A spokesman for Universities Scotland, which represents the country's 19 higher education institutions, said that while the OfS policy will not extend to Scotland, the issue of no-platforming "crossed borders".

He said: "We don't believe it is necessary for Government to take additional action in this area as universities already have a range of legal responsibilities to uphold free speech and the legal limits on free speech where it is used to incite hatred.

"Within that legal framework, we believe there is an important role for universities in encouraging respectful debate and challenging those with different views, using evidence and reasoned argument. Universities also have responsibilities to promote and support equality and diversity which is an important consideration in this space.”

The OfS has already come under fire for appointing free school pioneer Toby Young to its board, who has faced a backlash on social media for his suitability for the role.

Herald View: Platforms should be for free speech, not suppressing opinion

Last month Universities minister Jo Johnson said in a speech at a Jewish culture Festival in Birmingham that universities should be places that "open minds, not close them."

He said that students must be able to challenge controversial opinions, saying there was dangers in shielding students from differing views under the banner of "no-platforming" or "safe spaces".

He said: "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.

"We must not allow this to happen. Young people should have the resilience and confidence to challenge controversial opinions."