(23.05.23) We are delighted that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023 has now received Royal Assent and is law, following a lengthy and challenging process. This is in no small part down to the tenacity and perseverance of many politicians and free speech activists and is a fantastic achievement for all concerned and a significant step forward in the campaign to protect free speech for students and staff alike within the higher education arena.
So, what does the new Act do?
The Act enhances the existing legal obligation on higher education providers (HEPs) to secure free speech within their establishments, for staff, students and visiting speakers, and now also requires HEPs to actively promote free speech and to secure academic freedom.
The requirements are now extended to “constituent institutions” such as Oxbridge and Durham colleges. This will more directly require them to protect free speech than is currently the case. The Helen Joyce scandal at Caius Cambridge, about which we have written extensively, might not have happened had these requirements then been applicable. Importantly, these duties now also apply to students’ unions and their activities.
The Act creates a complaints structure whereby students and academics can complain to the OfS if they believe their speech rights have been breached. The OfS will have the power to fine HEPs if it finds them at fault. A big step is the creation of a new statutory tort, whereby students and academics will be able to sue HEPs if their speech rights have been breached.
Further information on the complexities and details of the new laws will in time be appearing on our sister campaign’s website – see www.bfsp.uk.