New legal duties to protect freedom of speech at universities and colleges in England have been announced by the Education Secretary. These measures will safeguard academic debate and prevent people having their opinions and views silenced.

In practice, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will put in place new freedom of speech conditions on universities registered with the regulator, the Office for Students.

The Freedom of Speech Bill will protect the rights of students, academics and speakers. pic.twitter.com/H3zmSfn7tN

— Department for Education (@educationgovuk) May 12, 2021

Universities will be legally required not only to take steps to secure lawful freedom of speech and academic freedom, but also to promote them on campus, and they could face sanctions if they fail to do so.

The Office for Students will have the power to impose sanctions, including financial penalties for breaches of the conditions.

This is why we have taken this important step.

Why is protecting freedom of speech on campus so important?

 Intolerance is unacceptable in any circumstance – but it is particularly important that universities and students’ unions don’t silence people or stifle debate.

Universities are renowned for being places of innovation and invention and that requires challenging received wisdom in the knowledge that you are safe to do so.

At times, freedom of speech may mean having difficult discussions, or putting forward thoughts and discussing ideas that are controversial, challenge the mainstream, and may even be offensive to some.

That is the nature of education, and these debates are vital in helping form balanced world views and in understanding other people’s points of view.

Dr Arif Ahmed from Cambridge University explains how free speech is one of the most important rights in society.

Our plans will strengthen and protect freedom of speech at university. pic.twitter.com/75FYxO8hN3

— Department for Education (@educationgovuk) May 12, 2021

Under the Equality Act, universities have a responsibility to protect students from harassment and unlawful discrimination and this Bill does not override that, but rather allows for the free expression of lawful views.

What evidence is there that this is a problem?

Recently, there have been mounting reports of a creeping censorship on campuses across the country. Under a rising ‘cancel culture’, some students and lecturers have felt unable, and even unsafe, to speak or discuss what is on their mind.

There are cases of students being wrongfully expelled from their courses for airing particular views; of academics losing their jobs and being threatened for their course materials, including an incident when a female academic was threatened, and called ‘a Nazi’ who ‘should be raped’ for discussing how proposed changes to the Gender Recognition Act might affect women’s rights.

But it goes beyond these isolated instances – there are numerous reports of similar cases happening at universities across the country.

Isn’t this just potentially opening the door to things like hate speech and extremism?

 No – freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom to break the law.

The new duties only relate to lawful freedom of speech. Protecting lawful free speech is very different to allowing harassment and unlawful discrimination or inciting others to violence or terrorism, all of which will not be tolerated on our campuses.

We all have the right to articulate views which others may find objectionable as long as they don’t meet the threshold of hate speech and inciting violence.

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