Government ‘dilutes plans to protect freedom of speech in universities, meaning people who don’t have a platform can only use courts as a last resort’
- The government has made concessions to universities on new powers to allow students and academics to sue institutions for violating freedom of expression
- Certain complaints of this nature will have to be dealt with through university procedures and the higher education regulator under new amendments
- Concern is growing that changes make the right to freedom of expression on campuses more vulnerable
New powers to protect freedom of speech in universities have been ‘watered down’, it was reported last night.
Last year, former education secretary Sir Gavin Williamson announced a law designed to prevent students and academics from canceling controversial speakers.
The government has made concessions to universities over new powers it created to allow students and academics to sue institutions for violating their right to free speech.
But now amendments to the bill would have been tabled, meaning those affected by no-platforming and other freedom of speech issues will have to address complaints through university procedures and the higher education regulator – only through legal routes last resort .
Tory MP Sir John Hayes (pictured), who scrutinized the bill in the House of Commons, said: ‘I had already warned the Secretary of State and ministers about the risk of watering down the bill and it would be very disappointing if the Government would capitulate. 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’
This would mean plaintiffs would have to prove they suffered a loss, raising fears that the right to free speech on campuses will be more fragile than under the original plans.
Tory colleagues have argued that the law would cost universities dearly.
Other conservatives, however, are angry at what they say is a decline in support for free speech.
Jo Phoenix, an academic who left the Open University in December last year after a campaign by trans activists, called the amendments “appalling.”
She said, “Now to think I would have to go through a lengthy grievance process, let’s just say that this process is an excellent way for university administrators to kick the problem into the long grass in our universities.”
Baroness Barran, parliamentary secretary of state at the Department of Education, wrote to colleagues on Wednesday that the statutory tort amendments, which give academics new powers to sue universities in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act, were tabled after the government had listened carefully to arguments in the Lords.
On Thursday, the government said it still supports free speech and rejected suggestions that the bill was watered down as “nonsense.”
Last year, former education secretary Sir Gavin Williamson (pictured) announced a law designed to prevent students and academics from canceling controversial speakers
The bill retained the power to create a new Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom in the Office for Students.
The person who fulfills this position has a free complaints procedure.
Tory MP Sir John Hayes, who scrutinized the bill in the House of Commons, told The Daily Telegraph: “I had already warned the Secretary of State and ministers about the risk of watering down the bill and it would be very disappointing if the government would capitulate. 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.”
A government spokesman said: ‘All the core provisions of the bill remain as they always have 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.”
Lord Moylan, the Conservative peer, said the amendments would negatively affect ‘one of the few effective measures the bill contains for the protection of academics and for the protection of freedom of expression’.
The bill has drawn criticism in the House of Lords from colleagues such as Lord Willetts, the former Secretary of State for the Conservative Universities.
Willetts said the creation of a new statutory tort that would allow academics to sue universities “risks duplicating the functions of the Office for Students and imposing unnecessary additional costs on universities.”
The Russell Group, representing 24 leading UK universities, had called on the government to abolish the tort or change the legislation to ensure complaints procedures at the Office for Students are ‘exhausted’ before any civil claims are made.
This would ensure that the new laws add a “real extra layer of protection to individuals who are concerned about freedom of expression and who have suffered a loss,” it argued.
Currently, students and academics can apply for a judicial review if their rights are violated, but this route costs more money than most can afford.
The amendments were tabled before the bill returns to the House of Lords for the report stage next week.