Some good news in today’s Times:
Government calls time on student cancel culture in state opening of parliament
Student unions will be legally obliged to protect freedom of speech for the first time and could be taken to court by cancelled speakers, the government has announced.
New laws will make it easier for academics, students and visiting speakers to take action against universities and student unions and claim compensation if they are gagged. The move follows instances of “no platforming” on campuses and claims that staff have been penalised for expressing controversial opinions.
The plan was one of two attacks on “cancel culture” outlined in the Queen’s Speech yesterday, with the second focused on online communication.
Ministers are to publish legislation to regulate social media companies, which will include an unprecedented requirement for them to safeguard freedom of expression.
The measures, enforced by Ofcom, will mean that companies such as Facebook and Twitter must provide people with “routes of appeal” if their messages are removed.
Universities claimed that the new laws covering them were unnecessary and would create more bureaucracy. They also said free-speech problems on campus were exaggerated.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, insisted that the new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which will be introduced in parliament today, would be a “milestone moment”. It would bolster existing legal duties, encourage “open intellectual debate” and counter the “chilling effect of censorship on campus”.
Universities and colleges in England will be required to actively promote freedom of speech. Academics, students or visitors will be able to seek compensation through the courts if, for example, they are dismissed for voicing controversial opinions or lose speaker fees after being cancelled.
The Office for Students, the university regulator, would have the power to impose fines on institutions that fail to follow the rules, and the government intends to appoint a director for freedom of speech and academic freedom, who will investigate possible breaches.
James Murray, senior associate at Taylor Vinters, who advises universities on free speech issues, said: “This will add much more complexity to university governance, including significant new compliance requirements.”
The Department for Education highlighted examples where it said free speech had been restricted, including Bristol University’s Middle East Forum being charged nearly £500 in security costs to invite the Israeli ambassador to speak, and academics signing an open letter in 2017 expressing opposition to the Oxford professor Nigel Biggar’s comments that British people should have “pride” as well as shame in the empire.
A Universities UK spokeswoman said: “Universities are rightly already required by law to protect free speech and academic freedom, and they update their policies on this regularly.”
The measures relating to social media companies will be in an online safety bill, also published today.
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