Free speech champion to tackle ‘censoring and silencing’ at universities

Thinktank Policy Exchange recommended the government create a free speech champion in a report published last year

The education secretary will appoint a “free speech champion” who will sanction universities and students’ unions “silencing and censoring” people because of their views.

Details were published first in the Sunday Telegraph yesterday (Sunday 14 February) – and further information is expected from the Department for Education (DfE) later this week.

According to a DfE source, the new ombudsman will work with the Office for Students (OfS) in England. They will have the power to fine those that restrict speech unlawfully and intervene if somebody is dismissed or demoted for their views.

An education department source told The Sunday Telegraph: “Free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views and cultivate an open, inquiring mind.

“Unacceptable silencing and censoring on campuses is having a chilling effect, and that is why we must strengthen free speech in higher education, by bolstering the existing legal duties and ensuring strong, robust action is taken if these are breached.”

The OfS concluded in 2018 that there was “no evidence of free speech being systematically suppressed”. Positioning itself in the debate has preoccupied the regulator following a 2018 report on university free speech by the Joint Committee for Human Rights.

The JCHR investigated the matter and decided that “press accounts of widespread suppression of free speech are clearly out of kilter with reality”.

The inquiry interviewed students, student society and student union representatives, vice-chancellors and university administration staff.

The committee concluded: “Any inhibition on lawful free speech is serious, and there have been such incursions, but we did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested.

“There are real problems which act as disincentives for students to put on challenging events and whilst most student union officers who responded to our survey (comprising 33 responses in all) say they are confident that they and their companions can speak freely, such disincentives could be having a wider ‘chilling effect’, which is hard to measure.”

The JCHR identified issues that could create a “chilling effect” on free speech, including non-specific “no-platforming” and “safe-space” policies that are open to misuse. The panel of MPs suggested challenging intimidatory protestors, unnecessary event bureaucracy and regulatory complexity as priorities.

OfS board minutes from 2018 reveal the challenge the regulator has faced in this regard. “There are expectations on the OfS to take a stance in the wider free speech debate but, with the debate becoming highly charged and emotive, the facts of a case are often distorted and the resultant media coverage can be reductive with key nuances getting overlooked. The OfS must ensure that, when it is asked for public comment, these nuances are not ignored.”

The biggest challenge the OfS predicted would be “how to operationalise free speech effectively” in a regulatory setting.

Speaking in a personal capacity last month, out-going OfS chair Sir Michael Barber warned against university “groupthink”, urging vice-chancellors to protect “diversity of perspective” as much as diversity in relation to social background, gender, ethnicity, religion, age, and disability.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson’s new policy follows a 2020 report that called for a free-speech champion.

Centre-right thinktank Policy Exchange published a report last year that recommended the government pass an Academic Freedom Bill that would institute a new director in the OfS.

The appointee would use “ombudsman powers” to enforce university compliance with academic freedom and freedom of speech, compile an annual report on the state of academic freedom and freedom of speech, and provide legal assistance to academics who claim to be the victim of discrimination.

Freedom of speech rose on the higher education agenda after Mr Williamson made the receipt of emergency government loans conditional on “fully complying with [universities’] legal duties to secure freedom of speech”. The education secretary made tackling “silencing and censoring” one of four priorities for the HE regulator in 2020. He stated in a letter to the OfS: “University administrators and heads of faculty should not, whether for ideological reasons or to conform to the perceived desires of students, pressure or force teaching staff to drop authors or texts that add rigour and stretch to a course.”

Newly-appointed OfS chair James Wharton told MPs during his appointment hearing that he remained open-minded on the issue of free speech on campuses. “I think it’s a space in which the regulator should be active. There have been if some of the media reports are to be believed – and I would like to take time to engage properly with some of the individuals and institutions concerned before coming to a judgement – there have been some mistakes made.”

Dr Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the free speech champion role was “job creation in pursuit of a culture war”.

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