Campus free speech law in England ‘likely to have opposite effect’

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 warns 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 trio told Williamson their organisations had significant concerns over the scope of the proposals, which would allow speakers to claim compensation if their free speech was curtailed by universities as well as student unions, and will appoint a “free speech champion” to the Office for Students (OfS), the regulator for higher education in England.

Universities will also have to satisfy new conditions around 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 in English universities in 2017–18, only 53 were rejected by a student union or university, less than 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.

“Further research is needed on the main threats to speech on campus, while the scope of enquiry into academic freedom should be widened to encompass government interference. We therefore call for the academic freedom bill to undergo a full, transparent, and meaningful period of consultation,” the letter said.

The planned legislation will include student unions within the scope of the OfS’s regulatory powers for the first time. Student unions are, in most cases, separate organisations regulated by the Charity Commission, meaning substantial legal upheaval may be required to change their status.

The bill also attracted protests from universities themselves, including the Russell Group of leading research institutions including Manchester and Leeds universities.

“We will always work constructively with government to uphold the legal protections already in place and if it feels it is necessary to enhance them further. However, it is vital that any further changes or additions to an already complex system are proportionate, protect university autonomy and avoid creating unnecessary or burdensome bureaucracy,” a spokesperson for the Russell Group said.

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.

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