The Queen’s Speech has set out the Government’s intentions to introduce laws designed to protect freedom of speech at universities.
In her speech this Tuesday as part of the State Opening of Parliament, the Queen outlined the Government’s intention to push ahead with the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, saying that legislation will be introduced to “protect freedom of speech”.
The proposed legislation will introduce new requirements that universities and student unions must follow. If guidelines are breached, a regulator will be permitted to issue fines. Student unions in particular will be responsible for ensuring the freedom of speech of its members and visiting speakers.
The new law would also create the post of ‘Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom’ – the postholder will be responsible for investigations of potential violations of freedom of speech duties. In addition to the fines that could be issued to universities and student unions, individuals whose free speech rights are violated would be able to seek compensation through the courts.
In her speech, the Queen said: “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”.
This part of the Queen’s Speech is likely to be a relief to pro-life students in particular, who have experienced discrimination from university authorities of different kinds for many years.
In what appears to have become a pattern at universities across the UK, many pro-life groups have been hindered in their ability to speak freely and enjoy the same benefits as other student societies.
In the last four years, student representative bodies at Aberdeen University, Glasgow University, Nottingham University and Strathclyde University have all tried to prevent student pro-life groups from being affiliated with their university and benefiting from the same privileges available to any other student group. In each of these cases, the student unions had to reverse their decision after the groups threatened legal proceedings against them. Students at Birmingham University also had significant difficulty becoming affiliated with the university but eventually won out against significant opposition.
In 2019, in the first case of its kind, a midwifery student at Nottingham University was suspended and faced possible expulsion from her course after a lecturer raised concerns about her role in the University’s pro-life group. Only after beginning legal action was the University’s decision overturned. Towards the end of 2020, this incident was closed after the university extended an apology to the student and offered compensation for her unjust suspension.
More than a quarter of students self-censor
Attacks on free speech, the problem of censorship and a culture of intimidation in British universities is widespread and affects students across the political spectrum.
A recent survey undertaken by Survation for legal advocacy group, ADF International, has found that 27% of university students have ‘hidden’ personal opinions that they believe may be at odds with those of their university.
The same survey found that 44% of students believe that their lecturers would treat them differently if they made their views known, and that 38% believe that their future careers might be adversely affected if they openly expressed their true opinions.
A spokesperson for the Alliance of Pro-Life Students said: “This is wonderful news! Almost all of the student pro-life societies we support have faced some form of discrimination, censorship or harassment at the hands of their Student Unions and/or Universities”.
“This was made very clear to us when we conducted our survey into campus censorship last November, the results of which we sent to the education department as evidence of serious failings on campuses to protect students’ freedom of speech”.
“We’re delighted that the government have responded pro-actively to the problem and look forward to seeing how this new bill will positively affect university culture and make it easier for our societies to spread the pro-life message”.
Right To Life UK spokesperson, Catherine Robinson, said: “Further protections on freedom of speech for pro-lifers are most welcome although it remains to be seen whether a new law will make a material difference to pro-life students who encounter various difficulties and attacks on their free speech on a more or less routine basis”.
“The National Union for Students claims there is ‘no evidence of a freedom of expression crisis on campus’. The NUS is either ignorant or disingenuous. Pro-lifers have ample experience of being censored at universities. Perhaps, though, all the NUS really means is that there is no evidence that students who share its pro-abortion views have their freedom of speech under threat. What a massive surprise…”