Without free speech, there can be no free exchange of ideas, no free society and no effective democracy.
Even, or perhaps especially, during the pandemic there has been robust public discourse about the scale and impact of the threat to life and to the economy that the virus poses. There has been legitimate and wide-ranging debate of the various medical and epidemiological approaches that could or should be taken. There has been vigorous challenge from the media, from academics and from many of the specialist committees of both Houses of Parliament, and in the main chamber of both the Commons and the Lords. This is a sign of a healthy society.
So, even with the most draconian lockdowns since the Black Death, free speech was not stifled, faces may have been masked, liberties encroached upon, hugs rationed, hospitality shut down, but at no time were the mouths of the people and the institutions of a free society, gagged. There was no demand to shut down alternative views. Indeed, a stronger consensus and belief in it, are arguably better created and upheld because they survive such challenge, not because they are destroyed by it. Challenge creates credibility.
But, in recent years, we have seen large sections of society demonise those who hold different views to theirs, views which are considered out-dated, out-moded or just downright wicked. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in social media and on the campuses of our once great universities, which were historically the powerhouses of intellectual debate, challenge and societal improvement.
We have seen prominent speakers “de-platformed” or simply banned from expressing their views lest that harm the smug integrity of one or more groups who might be exposed to ideas that challenge their own orthodoxy. The government has decided to act before this risks permanently damaging the reputations of our great institutes of learning and creating a one-dimensional commonality of thought.
The Queen’s Speech gave a commitment that a Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will be introduced to “strengthen and renew democracy and the constitution…and to protect freedom of speech”.
The Government argues that the main benefits of the Bill will be:
- Strengthening legislation on freedom of speech and academic freedom in higher education in England, with duties on higher education providers and students’ unions.
- Ensuring that universities in England are places where freedom of speech can thrive for all staff, students and visiting speakers, contributing to a culture of open and robust intellectual debate.
- Ensuring that academic staff feel safe to question and test received wisdom and put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without being at risk of losing their jobs, privileges or promotion.
- Creating ways for staff, students and visiting speakers to get redress if they suffer a loss as a result of the duties being breached.
The main elements of the Bill are:
- Including new freedom of speech and academic duties on higher education providers and students’ unions. The regulator, the Office for Students, will have the power to impose fines for breaches.
- Ensuring that, for the first time, students’ unions at universities will have to take steps to secure lawful freedom of speech for their members and others, including visiting speakers.
- Creating a new role of Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom at the Office for Students, with a remit to champion freedom of speech and academic freedom on campus, and responsibility for investigations of infringements of freedom of speech duties in higher education which may result in sanctions and individual redress.
- Enabling individuals to seek compensation through the courts if they suffer loss as a result of breach of the freedom of speech duties.
The team at Whitehouse Communications are expert in influencing education policy and will be fully engaging with the legislative process on behalf of education providers and students.
The Whitehouse Communications team are experts in providing public affairs advice and political consultancy to a wide range of clients, especially skills and training providers, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union and beyond. For more information, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at firstname.lastname@example.org.