Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Briefing - Lords Stages

20 June 2022

The Russell Group supports the principles underlying the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill and believe that aspects of this legislation will help ensure consistency across the higher education sector on free speech protections. The importance of free speech and academic freedom mean it is right that we look closely at areas where legal protections can be improved.

However, new legislation must not undermine the ability of universities and students’ unions to prevent harassment or comply fully with counterterrorism legislation while acting to protect free speech. In a number of areas there are significant practical and legal concerns over the impact the reforms could have on universities and students' unions. These include:

1) Proposed changes to the law that make it more challenging for universities to balance competing legal duties and defend free speech while complying with equality law, protection against harassment and counterterrorism legislation.

2) The lack of clarity over how a new statutory tort offering a route to civil legal claims around free speech will interact with existing internal and external complaints procedures, and what protections will be in place to ensure claims are not frivolous or vexatious. 

3) Uncertainty around how the proposed Office for Students (OfS) free speech complaints process will interact with existing routes to redress, and the full role and responsibilities of the new Free Speech Champion. 

4) Ensure new reporting requirements and regulations relating to international R&D and commercial arrangements that duplicate existing security regulations are targeted properly with risk-based exemptions and proportionate reporting thresholds will protect UK values and our national interest. 

HE Freedom of Speech Briefing.pdf

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