Arif Ahmed appointed OfS’ first free speech director

University of Cambridge philosopher takes on crucial role following the passing of England’s new free speech legislation

June 1, 2023
Arif Ahmed
Source: Jean-Luc Benazet
Arif Ahmed

University of Cambridge professor Arif Ahmed has been appointed England’s first director for freedom of speech and academic freedom at the Office for Students (OfS).

Professor Ahmed will take responsibility for implementing the country’s new legislation, which requires universities and students’ unions to protect and promote free speech on campuses.

The OfS has been handed a series of additional powers to ensure that universities comply with the new law. It is also expected to soon publish guidance that will shape the future responsibilities of universities in this area.

Professor Ahmed was one of the key campaigners who helped to overturn Cambridge’s own free speech policy in May 2021; the policy would have required staff and students to be “respectful” of each other’s “differing opinions”.

He argued at the time that it was “vague, subjective and restrictive” and tried to curtail free speech beyond what was required by law.

The philosopher has also been involved in campaigns to ensure that controversial speakers are able to speak at the university. He argued last year that students should expect to be exposed to ideas that they might find “shocking, disturbing or offensive”.

In a statement announcing his appointment, Professor Ahmed said “free speech and academic freedom are vital to the core purpose of universities and colleges”.

“They are not partisan values. They are also fundamental to our civilisation. As director, I will defend them using all means available. I feel tremendously honoured and fortunate to have been appointed.”

His appointment comes in a week when the philosopher Kathleen Stock faced protests in Oxford over her gender-critical views. Students objected to her speaking at the Oxford Union, accusing her of spreading “anti-trans propaganda”.

The director role has a seat on the board of the OfS and will lead on investigations of breaches of the new freedom of speech duties, including handling the complaints of students, staff and visiting speakers who feel they have suffered a loss as the result of a breach.

“Freedom of speech and academic freedom are essential underpinning principles of higher education in England,” said Susan Lapworth, chief executive of the OfS.

“Arif’s appointment will ensure they continue to be robustly defended across the sector. Arif will bring an important academic perspective to the OfS’ work in this area, and I am looking forward to working with him as we implement the new legislation.”

The minister for children, families and well-being, Claire Coutinho, said: “We’re making history with the Freedom of Speech Act, ensuring that fear does not undermine the rights of students and academics to debate controversial ideas and securing the right to an open exchange of ideas in universities.”

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