February 17, 2021 - 9:08am

It’s here. A new white paper setting out what the Government intends to do about protecting free speech and academic freedom in our universities.

The proposed measures fulfil a Conservative manifesto promise — prompting criticism that this just a stunt, a piece of political theatre. The white paper is a solution to problem that doesn’t exist, because there is no real threat to free speech — or so say a group of people whose own views, whether on Brexit, gender, religion or politics, place them entirely within the academic mainstream.

To which the obvious rejoinder is: how would they know? If it’s not them being cancelled, de-platformed or shouted down, then their ‘lived experience’ is limited. Even if they concede that there have been some regrettable incidents, but that these are isolated, how could they understand the impact on the willingness of a much larger number of people to speak out? The chilling effect on free speech is something that they might consider as a theoretical possibility, but it’s not something they can feel.

It should be said that free speech is already protected in law. There are the basic human rights of course, but also provisions that apply specifically to higher education. To quote from the white paper:

Section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 places a duty on those concerned in the governance of all [higher education providers] registered with the [Office for Students]… to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for their members, students and employees, and for visiting speakers
- Free speech and academic freedom, GOV.UK

So what precisely are the critics of the white paper objecting to? Is it that these Section 43 duties exist at all? If so, I’d love to hear their arguments for why they should not.

But if they do support these duties — and the corresponding rights — then what is wrong with a white paper whose purpose is to close loopholes and to make it easier for people to access the protections they are legally entitled to?

There is a parallel here to legislation that protects people from discrimination on the basis of sex, race, age and other characteristics. It is all very well having these safeguards in theory, but if they also need to work in practice. This is why we have systems in place – for instance employment tribunals that reduce the cost and complications of getting justice.

Therefore, if it isn’t the principle of free speech that the critics of the white paper object to, then they need to explain why it shouldn’t be easier for academics, students and visiting speakers to have their rights upheld.