Government's University Free Speech Law 'Likely To Have Opposite Effect’ Say Campaigners | TOTUM
Ben HaywardMay 12th
2021

A new bill that would see universities in England forced to promote free speech has been criticised by campaigners, who say it is more likely to have the opposite effect.

A letter sent to education secretary, Gavin Williamson, by the leaders of the Index on Censorship, English PEN and Article 19 freedom of expression groups says the proposed plans could in fact lead to a reduction in what is deemed ‘acceptable’ speech on campus. 

In the letter, the group says it believes the bill could introduce ‘a chilling effect both on the content of what is taught and the scope of academic research exploration'.

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They highlighted significant concerns about some of the proposals, in particular a provision for speakers to claim compensation if their free speech was curtailed by universities or students' unions.

Universities will also have to adhere to the new conditions in order to maintain their registration with the Office for Students (OfS), which allows their students access to public funding and government-backed loans.

The letter states: “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. 

“On university campuses, freedom of expression issues are best dealt with by existing legislation and by the universities and student unions themselves.”

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The legislation would also see students’ unions required to register with the OfS, giving it new powers to fine them for failing to comply with free speech provisions.

The bill has been developed partly in response to the issue of ‘no platforming’ which sees certain individuals - often with views regarded as extremist or exclusionary - not permitted to speak at extra-curricular events. 

However, according to the OfS’s own research, just 53 out of 62,000 requests by students for external speaker events at English universities in 2017-18, were rejected by a student union or university - less than 0.1%.

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The letter also complained about a lack of consultation in the development of the legislation, and encouraged the government to seize opportunity for ‘genuine engagement in the issue of academic freedom’.

It also suggested further research was required into what actually constitutes the main threat to free speech on campus, and that the scope ‘should be widened to encompass government interference’.

Universities are already required to comply with 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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