Good news from the Free Speech Union this morning. The FSU confirms ...
"In a major victory for free speech on campus, the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill got over the final hurdle in the House of Lords on Wednesday evening and will shortly receive Royal Assent.
This is a bill that the FSU has been campaigning for since it was created in February 2020. We lobbied for the bill when the Government was weighing up whether it was needed, advised the Government on what to include in it, defended it from critics in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, helped to amend it and, finally, mobilised our allies in Parliament to get it over the line.
The Bill does two things that will help secure academic freedom.
First, it will impose a legal duty on higher education providers (HEPs) to uphold free speech and extend that duty to students’ unions. The Education (No 2) Act 1986 required HEPs to “take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers”, but the new Bill goes further. It will impose a duty on HEPs to actively promote freedom of speech, and to protect academics’ freedom to question and test received wisdom, put forward new ideas and express controversial opinions.
Second, it will create two new enforcement mechanisms, so HEPs aren’t able to ignore these duties.
The first will be the appointment of a Director of Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom to the Office for Students (OfS), whom students and academics can complain to if they believe their speech rights under the Higher Education Act 2023 have been breached. This new ‘free speech tsar’ has already been appointed – it’s Dr Arif Ahmed, a professor of philosophy at Cambridge with impeccable free speech credentials – and he will have the power to fine HEPs if he finds them at fault.
The second enforcement mechanism is the creation of a new statutory tort, whereby students and academics will be able to sue HEPs in the County Court if their speech rights have been breached.
Taken together, this package of measures will go some way towards addressing the free speech crisis in our universities. About 20% of the 2,000+ cases we’ve dealt with in the past three years have involved universities, and we believe that in almost every one the student or academic who’s got into trouble would have been in a stronger position if this new law had been on the statute books.
Successive Conservative governments have been criticised for not doing more to protect free speech and that criticism is often deserved. But the Higher Ed Bill is something the present government can point to that will genuinely advance the cause of free speech. Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak’s governments deserve credit for introducing this bill and piloting it through parliament, particularly those who’ve served as Education Secretaries during this period – Gavin Williamson, Nadhim Zahawi, Michelle Donelan, James Cleverly, Kitt Malthouse and Gillian Keegan. Special thanks should also go to Claire Coutinho, the education minister tasked with getting the Bill over the line, which she’s done with aplomb."
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