Ministers Preparing New Law To 'Protect Freedom Of Speech' At Universities

Exclusive: 11-clause bill would fine student unions for breaches and clarify wider rights

Ministers are preparing a new law to strengthen the right to freedom of speech in universities, HuffPost UK understands.

Boris Johnson is understood to share education secretary Gavin Williamson’s deep concerns over the issue, not least in the wake of a fresh row over a student group at Oxford University deciding to “no platform” former cabinet minister Amber Rudd.

Williamson has already warned that he was ready to act if institutions like Oxford were not “robust” enough in their commitment to free speech.

It is understood that an 11-clause bill has been drafted within the Department for Education and could be brought forward in coming months to give life to the Tory Party’s 2019 manifesto pledge to “strengthen academic freedom and free speech in universities”.

The bill’s champion is Iain Mansfield, appointed last month as Williamson’s newest special adviser, along with some key figures within Downing Street.

Mansfield tried to push the legislation last summer when he was an adviser to higher education minister Jo Johnson, but faced objections from critics who felt that introducing new legislation would be an overreaction to the problem.

The Policy Exchange think tank, where he was head of education and skills, published a paper last year that called for an Academic Freedom and Free Speech on Campus Bill to clarify the law to protect views that some find unwelcome or even “deeply offensive”.

The paper, “The First Hundred Days: How the Government can Implement the Pledges in its 2019 Election Manifesto”, said new legislation should also extend the existing statutory duty to ensure the right to freedom of speech and academic freedom so it includes student unions.

Those student unions that breached the law could be liable to fines by the Office for Students regulatory watchdog, it added.

In December, Mansfield also pointed out that a recent report from the Policy Institute at King’s College London found that “at least one-third of Conservative or Leave-supporting students do not feel comfortable sharing their opinions” at university.

When he held the universities minister portfolio, the PM’s brother Jo warned that he wanted the Office for Students to have the power to fine those who “no platformed” speakers such as Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell.

Many suspected plans for a specific bill had been quietly dropped, but it is now very much back on the agenda, insiders said.

In 2018, Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights reported on “serious concerns” about barriers to free speech in higher education.

Several senior figures in the party now believe the law needs to be clarified or changed to prevent the spread of what is currently a minority activity becoming more widespread.

Williamson in particular is aware of that the bill would be a major step but is prepared to act to force student unions to uphold long-held freedoms.

Others in government have seen legislation as the wrong move given the relatively small scale of the supposed problem.

One source said: “It’s an obsession for some, but that doesn’t mean we should be spending time on it when there are so many other priorities. It would be mad to legislate.”

Downing Street made plain its displeasure on Friday after the UN Women Oxford student society withdrew an invitation to Rudd.

The society cancelled the event with 30 minutes’ notice after pressure from students who criticised Rudd’s role in the Windrush scandal and other government policies that negatively affected ethnic minority communities.

Williamson also denounced the decision by Oxford International Women’s Festival to “no platform” Oxford professor Selina Todd following pressure from trans activists.

He said on Friday: “For two speakers to have been no-platformed at Oxford within a week is unacceptable. It is not enough to adopt free speech codes if they are not enforced.

“I expect the University of Oxford to take robust action over these incidents – and, if universities are not prepared to defend free speech, the government will.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “This government has committed to strengthen academic freedoms and ensure our universities are places where free speech can thrive.

“Universities are required by law to uphold freedom of speech allowing academics, students and visiting speakers to challenge ideas and discuss controversial subjects. We have made clear that if universities do not uphold free speech, the government will.”

Current statutory requirements stem from the Thatcher government’s 1986 Education Act, which followed a string of “no platform” decisions by student unions to bar Tory politicians from events.

The law requires universities to publish a code of practice, which sets out the procedures their members, students and employees should follow to uphold free speech.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), said: “I accept there have been apparent free speech infringements at universities, but I don’t think there is a general problem of a lack of free speech in UK higher education.

“I do worry that some young students unintentionally stumble into tricky waters on free speech, but this is often because they haven’t thought the issues through deeply enough rather than because they have a firm predisposition towards shutting up their fellow students.

“There is a hard core who do want to stop others from speaking out but they have always existed. The complexity of the issue is confirmed by the fact that some people think the greatest threat to free speech on campus actually comes from the government’s own Prevent programme.

“I will look at any new legislation carefully but I am not convinced it should be a top priority for a government that is already busy dealing with coronavirus, extracting the UK from the EU and trying to work out the UK’s future role in the world.”

A HEPI study in 2016 found that 83% of students feel able to express their opinions and political views openly and 60% think universities should never limit free speech.

Some 68% of students supported trigger warnings, in which lecturers warn students in advance of teaching difficult issues in case they wish to leave.


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