Free speech legislation for UK universities

Today the UK Government released a new law that puts a duty on universities to promote freedom of speech. The National Students Union (NSU), the Union of Colleges and Universities (UCU), and much of the UK press suggest no problem exists. They have responded that the government should be focused on supporting students. So what is the reason the government say we need the law and is there any evidence?

Freedom of speech and the free exchange of ideas are core to our way of life and are the foundation of democracy. The right to express opinions and share ideas is specifically there to protect people when these opinions and ideas are intellectually challenging, rebellious, dissenting, or controversy, no matter how uncomfortable. Voltaire famously defended free speech by saying ‘I may disagree with what you say, but I will disagree with your right to say it.’ This freedom of expression also covers the right for people to disagree with other peoples’ opinions and ideas openly, challenge and debate these publicly, protest, and, most importantly, speak truth to power.

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. 

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights

The new law places a duty on Universities to promote freedom of speech as apart of their registration for degree awarding powers and receiving public money. Universities that do not comply will be fined and are now open to compensating academics, students, and speakers that are dismissed due to exercising their free speech. The UK is not the first to introduce such a law; other countries have laws specifically to protect freedom of speech in universities, including Ireland and the United States. It is important to note that this law only covers speech that is seen as legal already, speech that incites violence is still illegal.

The government say they are worried about censorship and ‘cancel culture’ within universities where pressure is used to silence dissenting opinions. They state that no-platforming denies other peoples rights to hear opinions and the right to challenge what they say, and has a ‘chilling effect’ on freedom of speech and academic freedom. Examples of no-platforming provided in the first reading of the bill include Amanda Rudd, Germain Greer, Peter Tatchell, Peter Hitchins.

Several surveys suggest censorship or self-censorship due to fear is a big issue in universities. The government state that Britain has the second-lowest level of academic freedom in all of Europe, a survey by Civitas states that 35% of Universities imposed severe limits of freedom of speech, and UCU state that 35.5% of academics self-censor for fear of the negative consequences of saying what they believe. Spiked produces a free speech university rankings that provided evidence that over half of UK universities are curbing free speech.

Universities are in a difficult position, with 50% of the population getting a degree by the time they are 30, campuses are increasingly diverse. HE Institutions have tension between freedom of speech and creating a safe and inclusive environment that supports students’ success. University rankings and recruitment are heavily related to student satisfaction, and these institutions need to be responsive to student opinions. HE institutions are also under pressure by the government to address the attainment gap between different ethnic groups achieving a first or 2:1. As well as creating an inclusive environment that provides opportunity, universities need to provide academic freedom for staff and students to debate essential and controversial ideas in pursuit of truth.

The NSU suggests that while there have been isolated cases of no-platforming, the problem has been overstated. The government should be focused on supporting students through the much larger issues of the current situation. The UCU has also criticised the timing of the new law and questioned the existence of a problem. Universities UK has suggested that Student Unions should have the democratic freedoms to decide how they should promote freedom of speech. However, individual academics have spoken out on both sides of the argument, with some questioning the effects on the autonomy of universities and others about their fear of the ‘Woke hate mob’.

Suppose the problem is small and isolated as the Unions suggest. In that case, the new law is only strengthening the rights that are already there, ensuring students and academics human rights are protected. If there is a problem as any academics suggest, this should protect democracy and the pursuit of truth.

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