Free speech law ‘must let cancelled academics sue woke universities’
Cancelled academics must be able to sue universities, the minister leading the Government’s war on woke campuses has warned vice-chancellors.
Claire Coutinho, the education minister, said the Government will “make sure that for academics and speakers who have their free speech rights wrongly infringed”, there will be the “right to go to court for compensation”.
The MP for East Surrey is spearheading a fightback against vice-chancellors and Lords trying to scrap a planned tort in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill that will give academics and students the power to sue universities for breaching their free speech rights.
Writing in The Telegraph as the Bill returns to the House of Commons on Tuesday, Ms Coutinho - a former aide to Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister - said that the law is “necessary to secure the cultural change needed on campus.”
She said that in recent years, there has been “a disturbing trend of forcing people into silence if they dare to go against what has become a progressive monoculture”.
The legislation follows a string of examples where academics have been "cancelled" over their views.
They include Prof Kathleen Stock, a philosophy professor who resigned from Sussex University after what she described as a "witch-hunt" because of her views on transgender issues.
Members of the House of Lords, including some of the party’s peers, voted in December to scrap the statutory tort in the Bill that would allow academics to seek compensation in the courts.
Instead, peers sided with universities who say the risk of being sued would create a huge administrative burden and put societies off hosting events.
The Government had tried to compromise by tabling amendments to water down the tort so that academics and students could only use it as a “last resort”. It would have meant they would have first had to pursue complaints through the lengthy procedures of the relevant university and the higher education regulator.
However, after a backlash from cancelled academics who said such a move would make the legislation “toothless”, Ms Coutinho has fought a battle to restore the tort in full.
She said: “I‘ve listened to people who have concerns about the legal mechanism, known as the ‘statutory tort’, which provides a means for people to go to court.
“However, I firmly believe the tort provides an important legal backstop for the duties in this legislation.
“It will allow those who have suffered any loss – financial or otherwise – to seek redress through the courts where needed.
“I’ve spoken to many leading academics who share my belief that the tort is necessary to secure the cultural change needed on campus.”
'Insidious repression of free speech'
The prestigious Russell Group of universities has renewed its calls for the tort to be removed.
“If returned to the Bill, the tort would add significant complexity for complainants, universities and students’ unions,” the Russell Group said in a briefing note.
“Managing the potential for litigation would also likely create significant administrative and resource burdens without adding to the enhanced protections for free speech introduced by the new Office for Students complaints process.”
It is understood that Tory MPs will be whipped to reject the Lords' amendment to scrap the tort on Tuesday.
Miriam Cates, a Conservative MP, said: “I’m very reassured that the Government has stood firm on academic freedoms. The success of the Bill depends on academics being able to take swift action when their free speech is restricted and the tort is crucial to this.”
Prof Nigel Biggar, an Oxford University don who has faced cancellation for defending the British Empire, said: “So far, university leaders have doggedly refused to recognise the scale of the insidious repression of free speech on campus.
“Against readily available evidence, the elite Russell Group continues to insist that the problem is confined to a tiny handful of event cancellations.
“Sadly, therefore, sight of the threat of litigation is absolutely necessary to make them take it seriously.”
If students can’t debate at university without fear or favour, where can they?
By Claire Coutinho, education minister
“Freedom is a fragile thing … it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation.”
Ronald Reagan said these words in 1967. More than 50 years later, our generation is facing our own battle for freedom – the freedom to express our opinions and debate controversial ideas without fear or favour.
Ironically, this is happening in our universities which traditionally have been the very institutions which have challenged prevailing wisdom – from the effects of smoking to the theory of evolution.
But in recent years, there has been a disturbing trend of forcing people into silence if they dare to go against what has become a progressive monoculture. Speaking invitations have been cancelled, visiting fellowships have been withdrawn, and academics have been subject to intimidation for taking part in debates on controversial issues.
Even more worrying is the chilling creep of self-censorship. One in three academics in the UK report that they self-censor because they worry about the negative consequences that might come from speaking their mind.
The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is our way of making sure we continue to not just defend, but also promote freedom of speech in higher education – as we promised to do in our manifesto.
Our Bill will protect academic staff, students and visiting speakers who advocate viewpoints of all kinds and will hold universities accountable for the state of free speech on campus.
We’ll do that by giving the Office for Students the teeth to impose fines on institutions where needed. We will create a powerful new “free speech champion” who will have the backing of the Government – and a legal duty – to promote and protect free speech, and investigate cases of no-platforming and restrictions on academic freedom. And crucially, we’ll make sure that for academics and speakers who have their free speech rights wrongly infringed, they will have the right to go to court for compensation.
I‘ve listened to people who have concerns about the legal mechanism, known as the statutory tort, which provides a means for people to go to court. However, I firmly believe the tort provides an important legal backstop for the duties in this legislation.
It will allow those who have suffered any loss – financial or otherwise – to seek redress through the courts where needed. I’ve spoken to many leading academics who share my belief that the tort is necessary to secure the cultural change needed on campus.
Britain is home to some of the best universities in the world with the brightest students. For many, it will be the first time in their lives that they will be exposed to vigorous open debates. We would be doing them a disservice to prevent them from being exposed to a host of different opinions and theories. That is exactly what makes their years of higher education so valuable and it makes for stronger thinkers overall.
From Milton to Mill, we Britons have fought for centuries to be able to disagree agreeably. We know that a civilised society is one where people express different beliefs and opinions without fear of repercussion. And we recognise that the best way you can change someone's views is by winning the battle of ideas.
If these debates cannot take place at our universities of all places, where can they?