Free speech ‘deteriorating’ as sector waits for OfS interventions

New complaints scheme may help ensure more open debates on campuses in time but Gaza crisis necessitates action now, say campaigners

December 18, 2023
A woman chants at a pro-Palestine protest in London
Source: Getty Images

Free speech campaigners have broadly welcomed plans to introduce a complaints scheme aimed at protecting open debate in English universities but say its architect, the Office for Students, should be more vocal as tensions grow over the war in Gaza.

This month, the OfS outlined how it intends to use powers handed to it by the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act, the focal point of which is a free-to-use system that will allow campus staff, students and visitors to bring to the regulator cases where they feel universities have impinged on their free speech rights.

Arif Ahmed, the OfS’ director of free speech and academic freedom, said the regulator would protect speech that some might find controversial, offensive or distasteful, as long as what was being said was within the law.

This was welcomed by Lewis Turner, a member of the academic freedom committee of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (Brismes), which has raised concerns about a “chilling effect” that has restricted conversations in universities about the current situation in Israel and Palestine.

“This, from our perspective, is a very positive thing,” he said. “This is the framework we have been arguing for for years, with great intensity in the last couple of months. As a core for interventions that may come, it is an appropriate and positive step.”

But Dr Turner, a lecturer in international politics at Newcastle University, said the “situation has continued to deteriorate in a range of ways in a range of institutions” and argued that the complaints scheme, which will not come into force until August, was not enough on its own.

“The levels of censorship and self-censorship and hostility to free speech on Palestine-Israel [are] at extremely high levels. We do think it is important that it is talked about and defended now,” he said.

Dr Turner also said the scheme might make a difference only in high-profile cases, where someone has said something that is within the law and has then been punished for it.

It might not be able to catch smaller, more subtle erosions of academic freedom, Dr Turner claimed, such as tweaks to social media policies or requests from heads of department to tone down language.

Speaking to reporters when his scheme was announced, Professor Ahmed largely declined to comment on the free speech debates connected to the Gaza conflict, saying he did not want to prejudge how the regulator might deal with cases from the summer. However, he said the OfS would have more to say on its general approach to promoting free speech in the new year.

The act’s new duties do not take effect until August, but the OfS said it was already possible to raise free speech concerns with the body if it was felt that an institution was not meeting its conditions of registration.

“Universities and colleges also need to have due regard to the Prevent duty, which is the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. The OfS has a statutory role to monitor what universities and colleges do to demonstrate this,” Professor Ahmed told Times Higher Education.

Bryn Harris, the chief legal counsel for the Free Speech Union, which campaigned heavily for the new legislation, said the Gaza situation had been “very difficult for university leaders” but “they must acknowledge too that some Jewish students are facing threat and provocation that don’t fall within free speech and are considerably more grave than the ‘microaggressions’ often policed by universities”.

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Reader's comments (1)

"Some Jewish students are facing threat and provocation that don’t fall within free speech" - so are some Muslim students and those with friends or family in Gaza too. Both protection from harm and freedom to express oneself are rights for all, whatever their ethnicity, faith, or background.