University free speech to be protected after Government U-turn
Free speech powers to protect controversial speakers from being cancelled by universities are set to become law after a Government U-turn.
Plans to water down the law that will enable academics and students to sue institutions for breaching their free speech rights have been dropped, the Telegraph can disclose.
Gillian Keegan, the Education Secretary, had signed off on amendments that would mean academics and students could only seek compensation in the courts as a last resort, after first pursuing complaints through the procedures of the relevant university and the higher education regulator.
However, those amendments to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill have now been dropped following a backlash from Tory MPs, cancelled academics and free speech campaigners who said they would make the laws toothless.
Prof Jo Phoenix, a professor of criminology who quit the Open University after she said it failed to protect her right to free speech in the face of attacks by transgender activists, said ministers were right to scrap the “horrendous” amendments to Clause 4 of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which sets out the new powers for academics to sue universities for free speech breaches via a statutory tort.
"Without this clause, the pathway for an individual to seek redress was going to be so convoluted as to be practically impossible,” she said. “Retaining the tort element sends a message to universities that they do need to take some responsibility for the actions of their staff and students because there is now a more direct route to financial compensation.”
The legislation is set to return to the House of Commons on Tuesday.
The U-turn places Tory MPs on a collision course with the party's peers, who voted in December to scrap the law that would allow universities to be sued for free speech breaches entirely.
Lord Willetts, a former Conservative universities minister, argued that the new powers for academics and students would be overly burdensome for universities and were unnecessary for protecting free speech.
However, Claire Coutinho, an education minister who is seen as a rising star in the Conservative party, a protege of Rishi Sunak and ally of Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch, has successfully argued that the tort should be reinstated to protect free speech on campuses.
On Thursday night, Ms Coutinho said: “I stand firm in my belief that the tort is an essential part of the Bill and that academics, students and speakers must be able to go to court when their rights to free speech have been wrongly infringed.”
It is understood that Tory MPs will be whipped to reject the Lords' amendment to scrap the tort.
The new laws to protect free speech at universities were announced by Sir Gavin Williamson, the former education secretary, in 2021, following a string of rows over the so-called “cancellation” of academics and students over their views.
They include Dr Heather Brunskell-Evans, who was no-platformed by university students at King’s College London after she discussed transgender issues on a radio show. In another example, Prof Kathleen Stock, a philosophy professor, resigned from Sussex University after what she described as a "witch-hunt" because of her views on transgender issues.
Toby Young, founder of the Free Speech Union, said: “Huge credit should go to Claire Coutinho. She made a good faith effort to strike a compromise with the Lords opposed to the tort … but instead they decided to reject the tort altogether.
“I know that dozens of academics who’ve been at the sharp end of cancel culture in British universities have contacted the minister to tell her why they think the tort is essential if they’re going to protect their academic freedom.
“She has clearly listened to them and not the sector’s lobbyists in the House of Lords telling her the free speech crisis in higher education is an invention of Right-wing culture warriors.”
The Bill will also give the Government the power to appoint a "free speech tsar" who will be able to investigate and fine universities which censure academics.
The frontrunner for the position is Prof Arif Ahmed, a Cambridge philosophy professor, who has hosted free speech training sessions at his college.