‘Proportionate’ free speech bill would be ‘welcome’, says UUK

But Royal Holloway principal warns against ‘frivolous and vexatious claims’ under planned legislation

September 14, 2021
UK houses of parliament
Source: iStock

The Westminster government’s campus free speech bill could be helpful for higher education institutions provided it is “proportionate and manageable”, according to Universities UK.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which would strengthen existing free speech duties on English universities and extend them to students’ unions, is currently passing through the House of Commons.

Giving evidence at the committee stage on 14 September, Paul Layzell, chair of UUK’s advisory group on free speech and academic freedom, said the bill, which would also enable individuals to sue for compensation if their free speech rights are breached, “could be helpful” as long as it “does not cut across existing mechanisms in universities for complaints”.

Professor Layzell, who is principal of Royal Holloway, University of London, said “vice-chancellors and their senior teams are concerned about the interplay of this legislation with other legislation”.

“There are plenty of mechanisms within universities to deal with complaints internally,” he said, alongside other routes such as employment tribunals, the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education and the English regulator, the Office for Students.

However, if the bill helps to clarify the rules “where a number of issues come together” and “brings transparency and clarity, then it’s welcome”, he said.

Critics have pointed out that the bill could result in universities and students’ unions “risk-assessing the life out of campus” or even give free rein to Holocaust deniers and other extremists.

Professor Layzell said free speech was already a priority for the sector, and so did not believe that anybody in the sector would have a problem with the requirement to positively promote freedom of speech. “What we want is something that ends up being proportionate and manageable,” he said.

This should include “mechanisms to prevent frivolous and vexatious claims” being made. UUK would “also recommend that the scope was limited to those who are directly affected by alleged breaches of a freedom of speech. Our worry is that this apparatus gets used for other purposes,” he said.

The bill also includes the creation of a “director of free speech and academic freedom” on the OfS board empowered to ensure compliance with the duties. Professor Layzell said it would be important that any sanctions meted out should encourage greater consideration and greater opportunities to learn from one another.

He added that UUK would be concerned if there was no right to appeal those sanctions.

Also giving evidence at the hearings was Jonathan Grant, professor of public policy at King’s College London, who said the bill was “somewhat overkill”.

This was particularly evident around “cancel culture”, a particular focus of the Westminster government.

“When you look at the data, it is very rare that events are cancelled or people get no platformed,” Professor Grant said. “But I do have concerns around issues such as the chilling effect, where people are self-censoring themselves in classrooms, but I wonder whether regulation is the way to address those concerns.

“How we have a more sort of open culture on campus where people have different views [and] feel competent in expressing them; I think that would be a much more useful conversation.”


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