Freedom of Speech Act to stop the university cancellation culture watered down by No. 10

The law to protect free speech at universities was announced by Sir Gavin Williamson, the former education secretary, early last year after a row over the so-called “cancellation” of academics and students over their views.

They include Dr Heather Brunskell-Evans, who was not platformed by university students at King’s College London after she discussed transgender people on a radio show, and Professor John Finnis, an Oxford law professor who faced calls to be removed from his post because of his views on homosexuality.

Professor Kathleen Stock, a philosophy professor, resigned from Sussex University after what she described as a “witch hunt” over her views on transgender people.

Baroness Barran, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education, wrote to colleagues on Wednesday saying the changes to statutory damages – which give academics new powers to sue universities in the Higher Education (Freedom of Expression) Act – were brought forward after the Government had “listened carefully” to arguments in the Lords.

On Thursday, the government insisted it remained committed to free speech and said suggestions the bill was being watered down were “nonsense”.

A spokesman said: “All the core provisions of the Bill remain as they have always been, to strengthen the protection of freedom of expression in higher education. It was always our intention that the tort should be used as a last resort.”

The bill has retained powers to create a new “director of freedom of expression and academic freedom” role in the Office of Students, which will oversee a free complaints system.

Ministers urged to “hold on”

Sir John Hayes, the Tory MP who chairs the Common Sense Group and scrutinized the bill in the House of Commons, said he would “appeal to ministers to hold their nerve in defending free speech”.

He said: “I had already warned the Secretary of State and ministers about the risk of watering down the Bill and it would be deeply disappointing if the Government capitulated to the forces of darkness, especially at a time when the attack on free speech has been highlighted. by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in The Reith Lectures.”

Adichie, the Nigerian author, warned this week that she worries society is suffering from an “epidemic of self-censorship”.

Lord Moylan, the Conservative peer, said the changes would undermine “one of the only effective measures that the Bill contains for the protection of academics and for the protection of freedom of expression”.

The changes follow opposition to the bill in the House of Lords from peers including Lord Willetts, the former Conservative universities minister, who said the creation of a new statutory remedy enabling academics to sue universities “risks duplicating the functions of the Office for Students and unnecessarily imposing additional costs on universities”.

The Russell Group had called on the government to either remove the tort or change the legislation to ensure complaints procedures at the Student Office are “exhausted” before civil claims are pursued.

It argued that this would ensure the new laws add a “genuine additional layer of protection for individuals with freedom of expression who have suffered a loss”.

Currently, academics and students can seek legal review if their rights are violated – but this costs hundreds of thousands of pounds, which is not viable for most professors or students.

The changes have been tabled before the bill is returned to the House of Lords next week for report stage.

‘Crushing blow’ to protect freedom of expression

Dr Julius Grower, an associate professor of law at Oxford University, said the changes were a “crushing blow to the protection of academic freedom of expression”.

He said: “It will be difficult for academics whose academic freedom is breached to show financial loss. In fact, one is not worse off by being forced to stay at home and watch television instead of traveling somewhere to give a speech.

“As a result, the number of violations of academic freedom that this clause will end up protecting is minimal. But non-platforming and cancellations will continue.”

Toby Young, founder of the Free Speech Union, said: “If the Government amends the Bill so that students and academics are only able to take their universities to the county court for breaching their freedom of speech after exhausting all other avenues, it will emasculate it. “

A government spokesman said: “The Office for Students will be able to impose sanctions, including fines, against any university that fails to meet its duty to protect its students, staff and visiting speakers.

“Should individuals wish to seek further action after exploring other available routes, they can still bring a claim to the courts.”

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