New Free Speech Champion and registration condition for higher education providers announced.
Tougher legal measures to strengthen free speech and academic freedom at universities in England have been announced by the Education Secretary today (16 February), to stamp out unlawful ‘silencing’ on campuses.
Following an increasing number of cases of individuals being silenced, the Education Secretary has warned of a ‘chilling effect’ where students and staff feel they cannot express themselves freely.
The proposed measures deliver on a manifesto commitment, and include a new free speech condition placed on higher education providers in order to be registered in England and access public funding. The regulator, the Office for Students, would have the power to impose sanctions, including financial penalties, for breaches of the condition.
The strengthened legal duties would also extend to Students Unions, which for the first time would have to take steps to ensure that lawful free speech is secured for their members and others, including visiting speakers.
In addition, a new legal measure would enable individuals to seek compensation through the courts if they suffer loss as a result of breach of the free speech duties – such as being expelled, dismissed or demoted.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said:
Under the plans, the Education Secretary would also appoint a new Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion to investigate potential infringements, such as no-platforming speakers or dismissal of academics, and higher education providers would be legally required to actively promote free speech.
The new Champion would be appointed to the board of the Office for Students and would be able to investigate potential infringements of the new registration condition on freedom of speech and academic freedom in higher education. The registration condition would work alongside strengthened legal duties on free speech and academic freedom and the Champion would also be able to recommend that the Office for Students imposes fines.
The policy paper also includes Government expectations that go beyond the minimum legal duties, setting out what universities should aspire to.
The Government say they will continue to work alongside the sector on guidance and further research, and the next steps for legislation will be set out in due course.
Tom Simpson, Associate Fellow at Policy Exchange, and an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Public Policy, at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, said:
Prime Minister Boris Johnson added this afternoon on Twitter: “Freedom of speech is at the very core of our democracy. It is absolutely right that our great universities – the historic centres of free thinking and ideas – will now have this freedom protected and bolstered with stronger legal protections.”