Stop using equality laws to limit free speech, universities warned

Universities must stop using equality laws as an excuse to limit free speech, the head of the higher education watchdog has warned.

Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the Office for Students, said that “too often” universities limit free speech by “leaning more fully” into their equality duties “than the law supports”.

Universities have a legal duty under the Equality Act 2010 to eliminate discrimination, harassment and victimization on the basis of characteristics including age, disability, religion, gender, transgender and sexual orientation.

However, the Student Affairs Office will warn universities on Thursday that policies that promote a particular protected characteristic “to the detriment of others” may “amount to unlawful discrimination” and may have the effect of “restricting” freedom of expression.

Lapworth said the new guidance produced by the regulator highlights “the importance of universities really understanding the content of that freedom of expression, alongside their equality obligations”.

She added: “Too often we see universities not understanding the legal framework properly, and perhaps leaning more into the equality obligations than we think the law supports, and we are concerned that it is acting to limit freedom of expression in some circumstances.”

“A creeping grip on self-censorship”

University administrators still claim free speech on campus “isn’t a significant issue,” when “it is,” Lapworth said.

She said: “We believe that the issues surrounding free speech are too complex and too important to reduce to a small number of events that do not go forward or a small number of high-profile, unplatformed speakers.”

The regulator’s guidance for vice-chancellors will highlight recent research from King’s College London which shows that over a third of students felt that freedom of expression is very or fairly threatened at their university, and research from the Policy Exchange think tank shows that 32 per cent of academics who consider themselves as right-wingers have refrained from airing their views in teaching and research.

Lapworth said universities will also be shown evidence from the think tank that “many academics appear to be falling victim to an insidious move of self-censorship”.

It follows a number of examples where academics have not been platformed or faced calls to resign for their gender-critical views.

Prof Kathleen Stock was forced out of her position in the philosophy department at Sussex University last year after she stated the difference between biological sex and a person’s gender identity and raised concerns about the erosion of women’s rights, prompting accusations of transphobia from students.

LGBT representatives at the University of Cambridge recently called for the cancellation of a talk by Helen Joyce, a gender-critical feminist, and Prof Pippa Rogerson, master of Gonville and Caius College, told students she would boycott the event because of Joyce’s “hateful” views.

“Important legal obligations relating to freedom of expression”

Lapworth said: “Universities have important legal obligations relating to freedom of expression and academic freedom within the law, including obligations relating to their policies and processes. I hope that 2023 will be the year when those watching our sector will see university leaders proactively focus on their compliance with these obligations.”

The warning comes as the regulator and universities prepare for new duties under the Higher Education (Freedom of Expression) Act, currently going through Parliament, which will require them to “actively promote” freedom of expression, rather than just secure it.

Dr Hollie Chandler, head of policy at the Russell Group, said: “The OfS is right to highlight the importance of free speech and academic freedom, and university leaders are already playing an active role in upholding these values ​​on campuses around the UK.

“Last year, senior leaders across the Russell Group reiterated their commitment to defending and upholding freedom of expression in a joint statement underscoring this as a core value at the heart of universities’ purpose as academic institutions.”

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