Universities must comply with free speech – or face penalties

13 May 2021

The Queen’s speech this week laid out new plans to introduce laws that would safeguard freedom of speech in universities. The laws would also extend to Student Unions for the first time, meaning that students, academics and visiting speakers could no longer be ‘no-platformed’ or cancelled simply for holding or expressing a particular view.

Compensation for being ‘no-platformed’

The government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will mean that students, academics or visiting speakers could claim compensation in the courts if they suffer loss from a breach of a university’s free speech duties.

The move follows multiple examples of ‘no-platforming’ on campuses in recent years. It would also be good news for students in a similar position to Felix Ngole, who was dropped from his social work course for expressing a Christian view of marriage and sexuality.

Once this becomes law, the Office for Students – the higher education watchdog for England – would also have the power to impose fines on institutions if they breach the rules.

‘Free speech champion’ for universities

This follows the news back in February, when the government announced the appointment a new universities ‘free speech champion’. The government has now clarified this role:

“A new Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom will sit on the board of the Office for Students, with responsibility for investigations of breaches of the new freedom of speech duties, including a new complaints scheme for students, staff and visiting speakers who have suffered loss due to a breach. …

“Registered higher education providers in England will have extended legal duties not only to take steps to secure freedom of speech and academic freedom, but also to promote these important values.”

‘A basic human right to express ourselves freely’

Speaking of the new legislation, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “It is a basic human right to be able to express ourselves freely and take part in rigorous debate. Our legal system allows us to articulate views which others may disagree with as long as they don’t meet the threshold of hate speech or inciting violence. This must be defended, nowhere more so than within our world-renowned universities.

“Holding universities to account on the importance of freedom of speech in higher education is a milestone moment in fulfilling our manifesto commitment, protecting the rights of students and academics, and countering the chilling effect of censorship on campus once and for all.”

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