Universities and free speech

Free speech, academic freedom, and diversity of viewpoint are vital to a free and tolerant society. They are under serious threat at our universities and other Higher Education Providers (together, “HEPs”), which is an evolving disaster for academics and students – and for our society.

It is, though, clear that the extent and onerous nature of the legal requirements are insufficiently appreciated by universities, and poorly complied with. BFSP has yet to see a detailed statement of the law and its impact which gets close to reflecting the full impact of what is required. BFSP is going to set this right.

A group of senior lawyers and academics and free speech focused organisations is developing a lengthy Statement for BFSP of best free speech practice in respect of English HEPs, reflecting the law as it is evolving, with the new Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill Act 2023 and the Forstater, and Fahmy cases effecting huge changes to the legal landscape. The statement will set out the relevant legal requirements and the actions, policies and practices which are required of relevant institutions to give the law – and its spirit – proper effect. We hope that it will focus universities’ minds on quite how onerous their legal obligations actually are – and, given that they that will be having to think carefully about their obligations in the context of the changing law, help reset their understanding of what is required of them.

Our initial focus is mainly on English universities and other higher education providers. We intend to produce equivalent statements in respect of HEPs in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Here are various statements on specific aspects of the free speech requirements.

For all English, Welsh and Scottish HEPs:

The Equality Act and the Forstater Case: Protected Viewpoints

Employers liable for harassment by their employees: the Fahmy case

Employers harassing staff by allowing disciplinary process to be weaponised: the Meade case

Equality Act and employer liability for harassment for protected views: the Phoenix case

For English HEPs:

Statement of the new legal requirements for protecting free speech for English HEPs

Statement for colleges and other constituent institutions of the new legal requirements to protect free speech

Statement for students’ unions of the new legal requirements for protecting free speech

Know Your Rights – one-pager

Know Your Rights – detailed (two pages)

Requirements for staff and student behaviour: English HEPs’ free speech compliance obligations (exposure draft)

Free speech complaints: Requirements and risks for English HEPs

Dealing with free speech crises effectively: Action needed to ensure compliance

Meetings at English HEPs – Free speech requirements and risks

Governance and appointing a Free Speech Officer

“Decolonising the curriculum”: potential free speech problems

Introductory EDI courses: potential free speech problems

Legal and compliance risks of relationships with external campaign organisations

BFSP’s work

BFSP will actively engage with the Office for Students, and its Director of Free Speech and Academic Freedom, about standards and requirements which are needed practice for securing free speech.

This project has the input and support of groups which are interested in free speech. Any number of organisations can refer to our statements as a reference point for their own work, and are welcome to do so subject to the terms about copyright and use of relevant documents set out here. Achieving consistency across multiple organisations about the standards required should be of general benefit. And if other organisations are saved expense on research and development, so much the better.

What constitutes best free speech practice will evolve over the years. There is plenty of agreement as to the general principles for securing free speech, but less about what that requires in practice. We will keep alert to evolving standards and practices.

We believe that BFSP, with co-operation from other free speech campaigns such as AFFS and the Free Speech Union (FSU), can significantly improve the level of protection of free speech by universities over the coming years.

Push for HEPs to adopt higher standards of free speech protection

BFSP will campaigns for institutions to:

  • adopt high standards of free speech promotion and protection,
  • work to improve those standards over the years, and
  • take active and concrete steps to put those standards into practice and promote and protect free speech.