Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Arif Ahmed, Nigel Biggar, Eric Kaufmann, Doug Stokes and the Free Speech Union


During its second reading in the House of Lords, various criticisms were made of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. In this briefing, we respond to those criticisms, showing them to be unfounded.

We address the following claims: that the Bill is designed to solve a non-existent problem (the free speech crisis in England’s universities is all too real); that it will impose costly burdens on universities (the financial cost of failing to protect free speech in universities is higher than the cost of protecting it); the new statutory tort provision will result in higher levels of litigation against universities (litigation will be a costly last resort for beleaguered students and academics); the new Director of Free Speech and Academic Freedom will be a political appointee (the appointment process will be no different from other appointments to public office); the Bill will protect Holocaust deniers (Holocaust denial is not protected free speech and universities would not be expected to devote time and resources to providing a platform to Holocaust deniers); the Bill will actually harm free speech by granting more power over universities to the Office for Students (the principle of university autonomy, while important, does not mean universities should not be obliged to protect the right to free speech, any more than they can dispense with any other human rights); the Bill makes impossible and contradictory demands (other legal duties belonging to universities, such as the public sector equality duty, properly understood, should not conflict with the new duty to secure and promote free speech); the Bill creates overlapping enforcement mechanisms (the first port of call for beleaguered students and academics will be the new Director of Free Speech and Academic Freedom and only if that fails are they likely to consider legal action); and the Bill will lower academic standards by forcing universities to give platforms to cranks and conspiracy theorists (the Bill won’t force universities to invite cranks and conspiracy theorists to speak, just protect the right of academics to invite whom they choose in the face of opposition from bureaucrats and student activists).

Full Briefing