‘Freedom of Speech’ legislature for UK universities leads to controversy after Queen’s Speech

On Tuesday May 11, Queen Elizabeth II announced the UK government’s plans to introduce new laws designed to protect freedom of speech at higher education universities and colleges over the next year. 

The Queen’s Speech marks the government’s decision to go ahead with a Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill for UK universities. 

The proposed legislation would enforce new restrictions and requirements on universities and students, and grant the Office for Students the right to dole out fines for any breaches.

Under the proposed rules, student unions will also be required to ensure freedom of speech privileges for any and all visiting speakers, even if their platform is in fundamental opposition to the student body. 

This follows after the controversy of cases of “no-platforming” – where speakers have been refused a platform to speak – on UK campuses in recent years. 

Education secretary Gavin Williamson responded in favour of the proposed legislation, saying that it was a basic human right “to be able to express ourselves freely and take part in rigorous debate.

“Our legal system allows us to articulate views which others may disagree with as long as they don’t meet the threshold of hate speech or inciting violence – this must be defended, nowhere more so than within our world-renowned universities.

“Holding universities to account on the importance of freedom of speech in higher education is a milestone moment in fulfilling our manifesto commitment, protecting the rights of students and academics, and countering the chilling effects of censorship on campus once and for all,” added Williamson.

The government hopes that the new requirements will ensure that university staff feel they can safely express their views, even if controversial or unpopular, without the fear of being sacked. 

Some, however, have spoken out against the new legislature. 

Jo Grady, head of the University and College Union, spoke out against the supposed student-led infringement of freedom of speech through “no-platforming” of visiting speakers.

“There are serious threats to freedom of speech and academic freedom from campus, but they come from the government and university managers, not staff and students.

“If the government wants to strengthen freedom of speech and academic freedom, it shouldn’t be policing what can and cannot be said on campus, and encourage university managers to move staff on to secure, permanent contracts,” added Grady. 

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