13th May, 2021 9:30 am
Campaigners attack the proposals, saying they will further limit what is deemed acceptable speech.
A controversial bill forcing universities in England to promote free speech has been attacked by freedom of expression campaigners, who say the legislation is more likely to have the opposite effect.
A letter to the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, from the leaders of Index on Censorship, English PEN and Article 19 says the government’s plans – including a free speech enforcer with powers to fine universities – “may have the inverse effect of further limiting what is deemed ‘acceptable’ speech on campus and introducing a chilling effect both on the content of what is taught and the scope of academic research exploration”.
The three organisations told Williamson they had significant concerns about the scope of the proposals, which would allow speakers to claim compensation if their free speech was curtailed by universities or student unions, and would appoint a “free speech champion” to the Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator in England.
Universities will also have to satisfy new conditions on freedom of speech to maintain their registration with the OfS, which allows their students access to public funding and government-backed loans.
“Universities are already bound by government legislation and have a legally binding duty to support and actively encourage freedom of expression on campus, including the right to protest. Blunt statutory tools may fail to recognise the various rights at play in any given situation, for example the rights of the speaker and the rights of students to protest against that speaker,” the letter states.
“This is a delicate balancing act that universities are best placed to navigate, not state regulators or courts of law. On university campuses, freedom of expression issues are best dealt with by existing legislation and by the universities and student unions themselves.”
The group said the extent of “no platforming” on campus needed to be further investigated, noting that the OfS’s own research found it was rare. Of the 62,000 requests by students for external speaker events at English universities in 2017-18, only 53 were rejected by a student union or university, less than 0.1% of the total.
“None of the signatory organisations have been meaningfully consulted in the development of the legislation thus far. We would welcome the opportunity for genuine engagement in the issue of academic freedom,” the letter said.
“Further research is needed on the main threats to speech on campus, while the scope of inquiry into academic freedom should be widened to encompass government interference.
Universities say they already comply with a complex set of legal obligations protecting free speech for staff and students, as well as Prevent anti-extremism regulations requiring them to monitor events and speakers.
The published bill will require student unions to register with the OfS, which will have new powers to fine them for failing to comply with free speech provisions. The bill also allows students, staff, applicants for academic jobs and visiting speakers to complain to the OfS, although they must first use internal complaints procedures.
The bill has also created conflict between the Department for Education and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, which hears complaints from students about their experience and education, over a regulatory overlap.
The OIA said in a statement: “We remain concerned that it may be difficult for students to make a fully informed decision about which route is best for their individual circumstances and that the complexity of arrangements is still likely to create confusion for students.”
The former universities minister Jo Johnson gave support to the new bill as a means of stopping universities’ “self-censorship” towards China, because of fear of retribution against students and staff. “That to me is a genuine and real threat to freedom of speech and I think if the bill can perhaps help address that issue, too, it will serve a very useful purpose,” he told a conference on UK-China research links.
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