Queen’s Speech sets out government plans for laws protecting free speech on university campuses

Controversial legislation will allow regulator to issue fines for breaches in higher education

Zoe Tidman
Tuesday 11 May 2021 12:36
comments
Queen's Speech sets out government plans for new freedom of speech protections

The Queen’s Speech has set out government plans to introduce new laws designed to safeguard freedom of speech at universities.

It marks the government’s intention to push ahead with a Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill for universities in England.

In a speech setting out proposals for the next year, QueenElizabeth II said on Tuesday that legislation will be introduced to “protect freedom of speech”.

Under the proposed legislation, new requirements will be imposed on universities and student unions, with a regulator able to issue fines for any breaches.

Student unions will also have to ensure freedom of speech for members and visiting speakers.

It follows controversy over cases of “no-platforming” of speakers - where they are refused a platform to speak - on campuses, including of former home secretary Amber Rudd.

The new Bill also covers the creation of a free speech champion at the Office for Students (OfS), with the power to issue sanctions.

The new role at the regulator - called director for freedom of speech and academic freedom - will be responsible for investigations of potential breaches of freedom of speech duties.

The new legal measures will also allow individuals to seek compensation through courts for any losses suffered due to infringements of freedom of speech in higher education.

In her speech on Tuesday, the Queen said: “My government will strengthen and renew democracy and the constitution.”

“Legislation will be introduced to ensure the integrity of elections, protect freedom of speech and restore the balance of power between the executive, legislature and the courts.”

Freedom of speech has been a hotly-contested topic at UK universities, with the government vowing to introduce greater safeguards.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said he was “deeply worried” about the “chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring” as he unveiled new legal protections earlier this year.  

But Labour accused the government of “manufacturing” a culture war controversy as a distraction tactic as the plans were revealed.

A university union said the government was “fighting phantom threats” while the National Union for Students claimed there was “no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus”.

Last month, top universities vowed to protect freedom of speech on their campuses, adding their institutions - traditionally the UK’s most selective - already facilitate “free and frank intellectual exchanges”.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments