The Memo: Free speech and universities: Greater protections on the way for students and lecturers

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Free speech and universities: Greater protections on the way for students and lecturers

Erin Bradbury – 23 October 2023

Striking a balance between the freedom of speech and protection from offence is a near impossible one, and efforts to do so have led to turbulent debates in the university sphere in recent years. A recent National Student Survey found that 1 in 7 students felt they could not freely express their own views. In fact, over the last decade, the UK has plummeted in the Academic Freedom Index and now sits 61st out of 174 globally, below our European counterparts. If you keep half an eye on the news, you’ll know that dialogue surrounding the freedom of speech in a university context is becoming increasingly polarized. But the precise reasons for the UK’s fall in the Academic Freedom Index revolves around student protests and ‘no-platforming’, where visiting academic speakers are prevented from presenting their research surrounding controversial topics. The most recent example of Kathleen Stock comes to mind for many, with hundreds protesting a gender critical talk on the basis that the Oxford Union platform would be used to vocalize anti-trans views.

In response to the building tension, the government passed the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill in May this year, which put in place protections and conditions for organizations registered with the Office for Students. In practice, this means that universities, colleges and student unions will have to ensure lawful freedom of speech on their campuses (where ‘lawful’ indicates dialogue that falls short of illegal hate speech or inciting violence). The Act sets in stone the principle that while some language may be objectionable or plain offensive, this doesn’t make it illegal, and it serves to protect the free expression of lawful views (while it does not override the Equality Act).

Whilst the Act is not yet fully in force (as the fine print is yet to be worked out), it is expected that the measures will come into law just before the 2024/25 academic year. The Office for Students (OfS) will establish a complaints scheme, headed by Professor Afrif Ahmend - the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom - who will oversee the scheme and investigate breaches made by universities. This will include the power the fine universities that breach it. The Act will also forbid universities from using non-disclosure agreements to silence people who raise complaints of sexual misconduct, abuse, harassment, or bullying.