The UK government is introducing a “historic” bill to protect free speech in universities and counter the “chilling effect of censorship” on campus, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said on Wednesday.
The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will require universities and colleges to defend free speech and help stamp out unlawful “silencing,” said the Department for Education (DfE).
The Office for Students (OfS), the higher education regulator in England, would have the power to impose fines on institutions if they breached this condition.
Academics, students, or visiting speakers will be able to seek compensation through the courts if they suffer loss from a breach of the free speech duties.
For the first time, students’ unions at universities would be required to take steps to secure lawful freedom of speech for members and visiting speakers.
Williamson said: “It is a basic human right to be able to express ourselves freely and take part in rigorous debate. Our legal system allows us to articulate views which others may disagree with as long as they don’t meet the threshold of hate speech or inciting violence. This must be defended, nowhere more so than within our world-renowned universities.
“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.”
The government cited examples of such censorship making students, staff, and invited speakers feel unable to speak out.
In February 2020, the students’ union of the University of Bristol charged Bristol Middle East Forum, a student society, almost £500 ($700) in security costs for inviting the Israeli ambassador to speak at an event.
In another example, over 100 academics signed an open letter in 2017 expressing public opposition to Oxford professor Nigel Biggar’s research project “Ethics and Empire,” because he had said that British people should have “pride as well as shame” in the Empire.
The government will appoint a new “director for freedom of speech and academic freedom” to investigate breaches of free speech rights and hear complaints from students, staff, and visiting speakers.
Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said the 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?” she said.
PA contributed to this report.