Freedom of speech protections for academics and students have been dealt a blow by a rebellion in the House of Lords.
Peers voted on Wednesday night to scrap a free speech law designed to prevent universities from cancelling controversial speakers.
The opposition to a key part of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill was led by Lord Willetts, a former Conservative universities minister, who argued that new powers to enable academics and students to sue for breaching their freedom of speech rights would be overly burdensome for universities and were unnecessary for protecting free speech.
He put forward an amendment to entirely scrap Clause 4 of the Bill, which sets out the new powers via a statutory tort, saying that the Government should have “confidence in its own regulator” to police freedom of speech without needing to use civil courts. The amendment was accepted with 213 votes in favour and 172 against.
The planned law, now under threat, was announced by ministers early last year following a string of rows over the so-called “cancellation” of academics and students over their views.
The Government faced a backlash last week for attempting to take the teeth out of the statutory tort by saying it could only be used as a “last resort” after university and regulator complaints procedures had been exhausted. Ministers had hoped the move would be enough to placate rebel peers.
Ministers are now facing pressure from free speech campaigners to fully restore the statutory tort when the Bill returns to the House of Commons.
Calls to restore Bill in full
Toby Young, founder of the Free Speech Union, said: “The Government amended the Bill to defang the statutory tort in the hope of winning round its critics in the Lords. Plainly, that hasn’t worked, so I very much hope the Government will restore the statutory tort in its original form when the Bill returns to the Commons.
“One thing is clear from today’s defeat: universities really don’t want students and academics to be able to sue universities if their speech rights are violated. Why? Because it would force them to put their house in order. To my mind, that’s the best argument for restoring the tort.”
Speaking ahead of the House of Lords vote, Lord Moylan, a Conservative peer in favour of more free speech powers for academics, said the Government’s attempts to water down those powers to placate universities had been “feeble” and sent a signal to “oppressed” academics that ministers were “no longer interested.”
Peers who voted to scrap the planned powers were accused of being too “close” to university vice-chancellors.
Lord Moore of Etchingham said there were a “great many people here who are very close to the top of universities, so it’s not very surprising that they will tend to think universities are running themselves quite well, and that they will think it’s all basically alright.”
He added: “But I think there needs to be a little more power for the voice of the ordinary student and ordinary academic who is really having a very rough time.”
Earl Howe, representing the Government, defended the amended statutory tort before it was voted down, saying it would “encourage a change of culture on our campuses” and “will give greater protection to academic staff to speak out.”
Claire Coutinho, a minister in the Department for Education, said: “Free speech has been the bedrock of progress in society for centuries. We remain resolute in our commitment that academics and speakers will have the right to go to court where this fundamental right has been denied.”