Universities in England could face being fined under newly announced legislation for failing to protect free speech on campus.
Students, academics, and visiting speakers could seek financial compensation if they suffer loss from a breach of the free speech obligations of a university.
The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech Bill) was proposed in the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday 11 May.
Under the new legislation new academic and freedom of speech duties will be placed on universities as well as, for the first time, student unions.
Individuals would be given the right to seek compensation through the legal system if these duties had been breached by a university, institution, or student union.
The Office for Students (OfS), the watchdog for higher education in England, would be given the power to impose fines for rule breaches by institutions.
This comes after the government announced the planned appointment of a “free speech champion” earlier in the year.
The government said they hoped the legal changes would ensure university staff feel safe advancing unpopular or controversial views, without risking their job.
This comes as academics at Edinburgh University claimed they were teaching in a climate of fear with some allegedly “hunted down” because of their divergence from the “unchallengeable orthodoxy” of gender identity theory.
A spokeswoman for Universities UK (UUK) said: “Universities are (rightly) already legally required to have a code of practice on free speech and to update this regularly.
“It is important that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is proportionate by focusing on the small number of incidents, while not duplicating existing legislation and creating unnecessary bureaucracy for universities which could have unintended consequences.”
There are serious threats to freedom of speech and academic freedom from campus, but they come from the government and university managers, not staff and students
– Jo Grady
Jo Grady, head of the University and College Union (UCU), pushed back against the proposed legislation saying, “There are serious threats to freedom of speech and academic freedom from campus, but they come from the government and university managers, not staff and students.”
“If the government wants to strengthen freedom of speech and academic freedom, it shouldn’t be policing what can and cannot be said on campus, and encourage university managers to move staff on to secure, permanent contracts.”
Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary, said it was a basic human right “to be able to express ourselves freely and take part in rigorous debate.”
“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.”
Michelle Donelan, Universities minister, said: “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?”