Right to sue for academics.
As part of a “cancel culture” crackdown due to be unveiled by the Government, academics will be able to sue if their free speech is violated.
Amid concerns about the rise of “silencing and censoring” of academics and students, Ministers are proposing new laws to bolster free speech at universities. The Government plans to introduce legislative changes which would enable academics and students to seek compensation through the courts if their free speech has been impinged. This will give students who have been expelled from their courses, academics who have been dismissed from their posts, or speakers who have been “no-platformed” over their views, a new legal recourse.
Under existing law, there is no specific right for individuals to seek compensation for breach of their freedom of speech. While anyone could seek a judicial review of a university’s decision, this does not establish any private law rights, meaning academics have no recourse to justice when institutions breach their duty to uphold free speech, under the Education Act. This has led to concerns among officials that laws do not go far enough to protect those whose free speech rights are violated.
In 2019, the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of a devout Christian student who was expelled from an MA in social work at Sheffield University over Facebook posts that labelled homosexuality a “sin” and “wicked”. Felix Ngole won a legal battle against the university which culminated in a ruling that the process used to remove him had been “flawed and unfair”.
In December 2020, Cambridge University dons voted down an attempt by university chiefs to force them to be “respectful of the diverse identities of others”. A group of academics warned that had the university’s changes gone through, they may have led to academics being disciplined or even dismissed for failing to “respect” other people’s views.
The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, warned of the “real and alarming threat” of censorship at universities whilst writing in a broadsheet newspaper he said he is, “greatly concerned” to hear a growing number of reports of a “silencing of voices and a chilling effect of censorship on campus”.
He later wrote: “Last year, I warned our vice-chancellors and leaders of the very real and alarming threat of censorship and a ‘cancel culture’ within our universities. Under this rising intolerance, students have found themselves wrongfully expelled from their courses, academics fired and others forced to live under a threat of violence.”
Mr Williamson also announced that a new “free speech champion” will be given powers to defend free speech and academic freedom on campuses and that universities that stifle free speech will be fined. Other proposed changes will ensure that, as well as universities, student unions are subject to a duties to promote free speech.
Universities will be given a new legal duty to actively promote free speech on campus, and this will become a new condition of registration with the higher education watchdog, the Office for Students, and that institutions that fail to uphold free speech could be sanctioned or fined by the regulator.
A spokesman for the Russell Group, which represents the country’s leading universities, said that ministers should support institutions to maintain free speech rather than add “unnecessary and burdensome bureaucracy”.