New legislation aimed at strengthening free speech at English universities will counter “the chilling effect of censorship on campus once and for all”, the Education Secretary has said.
Gavin Williamson said holding universities to account on the importance of freedom of speech in higher education was “a milestone moment” and it will protect “the rights of students and academics”.
His comments came as the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will be introduced in Parliament for the first time on Wednesday.
The Bill – which could see universities face fines if they fail to protect free speech on campus – was among the proposed changes to laws set out in the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday.
The Department for Education (DfE) said registered universities and colleges in England will be required to promote and defend freedom of speech and academic freedom under the proposed legislation.
The Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator in England, would have the power to impose fines on institutions if they breached this condition.
Academics, students or visiting speakers will be able to seek compensation through the courts if they suffer loss from a breach of the free speech duties.
For the first time, students’ unions at universities would be required to take steps to secure lawful freedom of speech for members and visiting speakers under the measures in the Bill.
Mr 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.”
In February, the Education Secretary warned against the “unacceptable silencing and censoring” on campuses as he unveiled the proposed legal measures to protect free speech.
Among the Government’s proposals is the appointment of a new Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom, who will investigate possible breaches of freedom of speech duties and oversee a complaints scheme for students, staff and visiting speakers who have suffered loss due to a breach.
The DfE highlighted some examples from recent years where they said students, staff and invited speakers have felt unable to speak out.
In one incident, Bristol Middle East Forum was charged nearly £500 in security costs to invite the Israeli ambassador to speak at an event, they said.
But the University of Bristol said no security costs were incurred as the event – which was due to take place in February last year – was cancelled.
In another case, academics signed an open letter in 2017 expressing opposition to Oxford Professor Nigel Biggar’s comments that British people should have “pride” as well as shame in the Empire, the DfE said.
Universities minister Michelle Donelan said: “The values of freedom of speech and academic freedom are a huge part of what makes our higher education system so well respected around the world.
“Which is why this Government will tackle head on the growing chilling effect on our campuses which is silencing and censoring students, academics and visiting speakers.
“This Bill will ensure universities not only protect free speech but promote it too. After all, how can we expect society to progress or for opinions to modernise unless we can challenge the status quo?”
Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said: “This Bill should be seen for what it is: the Government using freedom of speech as a Trojan horse for increasing its power and control over staff and students.”
She added: “If this authoritarian Government was serious about strengthening freedom of speech, then why is it cracking down on the right to protest freely via the Policing and Crime Bill?
“The truth is that widespread precarious employment strips academics of the ability to speak and research freely, and curtails chances for career development.”
A Universities UK (UUK) spokeswoman said: “Universities share the Government’s commitment to protecting and promoting free speech, which is critical to the success of the higher education sector.
“Universities are rightly already required by law to protect free speech and academic freedom, and they update their policies on this regularly.
“It is important that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is proportionate – focusing on the small number of incidents – and does not duplicate existing legislation or create unnecessary bureaucracy for universities which could have unintended consequences.”
An OfS spokesperson said: “Free speech and academic freedom are essential elements to effective teaching and research.
“Universities and colleges have legal duties to protect both free speech and academic freedom, and their compliance with these responsibilities forms an important part of their conditions of registration with the OfS.
“We will ensure that the changes that result from proposals expressed in (the) Queen’s Speech reinforce these responsibilities and embed the widest definition of free speech within the law.
“We will continue to work closely with the Government as these proposals are developed.”
A University of Bristol spokesperson said: “We are firmly committed to upholding freedom of speech and welcome decisions by our student societies to invite a wide range of speakers on to our campus, including those whose views may be considered controversial or divisive.
“However, it is important that these events are conducted safely and within the law. As part of the planning for each of these events, the society and the Students’ Union carry out a full risk assessment.
“If there are sufficient concerns surrounding the event, particularly if we are aware of planned protests, security may be required to ensure the safety of those attending, something which is included in the Equality and Human Rights Commission guidance to higher education providers.
“In addition, some speakers, particularly if they are high profile, require security to be present.
“Event costs – including security, if needed – are met by the society hosting the event – something that happens for student groups across the country.”