February 16: The UK government is to introduce legislation that will enable academics, students or visiting speakers who are no-platformed to sue universities for compensation where they feel they have suffered because of free speech infringements, the Guardian reported.
The proposal is one of a range of legal measures put forward by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, as part of the government’s manifesto commitment to protect free speech and academic freedom in universities in England.
However, critics warned the legislation will be fraught with difficulties and fiercely opposed by many, including the University and College Union, which accused the government of “fighting phantom threats to free speech” rather than addressing the Covid crisis in higher education.
Among the other government proposals that will be fleshed out on Tuesday is the appointment of a “free speech champion” who will investigate potential infringements of free speech in higher education and recommend redress.
In addition, a new free speech condition will be placed on universities in order to be registered and access public funding, and the higher education regulator in England, the Office for Students (OfS), will have the power to impose fines in the case of breaches.
Under the proposals, the government wants to introduce a statutory tort for breaches of the free speech duty, which would enable academic staff or students who have been expelled, dismissed or demoted to seek redress through the courts.
And for the first time the free speech duty will apply directly to student unions, which will be required to take steps to ensure free speech for their members as well as visiting speakers. The government is also looking at bringing student unions, which are currently governed by the Charity Commission, under OfS control.
Announcing the measures, the education secretary said: “Free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views and cultivate an open mind.
“But I am deeply worried about the chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring. That is why we must strengthen free speech in higher education, by bolstering the existing legal duties and ensuring strong, robust action is taken if these are breached.”
The University and College Union (UCU) general secretary, Jo Grady, responded: “It is extraordinary that in the midst of a global pandemic the government appears more interested in fighting phantom threats to free speech than taking action to contain the real and present danger which the virus poses to staff and students.
“In reality the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, or from so-called ‘cancel culture’, but from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus, and a failure to get to grips with the endemic job insecurity and managerialist approaches which mean academics are less able to speak truth to power.”
Hillary Gyebi-Ababio, NUS vice-president for higher education, said: “There is no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus, and students’ unions are constantly taking positive steps to help facilitate the thousands of events that take place each year.”
A statement from Universities UK added: “There are already significant legal duties placed on universities to uphold freedom of speech and universities are required to have a code of practice on free speech and to update this regularly.
“While it is important that universities continually reflect on ways they can further enhance and support free speech, we await further details on the proposals – including about the role of the free speech champion – before we can comment further about the implications for university and student union activities.”