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Freedom of Speech on Campus

The long-awaited Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is now law in the United Kingdom

The ideal university experience doesn’t as much teach you what to think, but how to.

Without heated debates, thought-provoking guest speakers and lively conversations with friends and academic staff, what’s to stop a peer-pressured uniformity that opposes true democracy?

University campuses should be the space where freedom of speech flourishes and where students are empowered to debate and explore all kinds of ideas – even those with which they disagree.

However, universities in the UK are seeing a growing culture of intolerance, ‘no-platforming’, ‘safe spaces’ and disruptive protests – leaving students hesitant to share their views with professors and peers alike.

Do you know the story of Julia Rynkiewicz?

She was suspended from her university simply for her pro-life views as a midwifery student. ADF International helped Julia return to university, but the unjust investigation left her emotionally exhausted.

No student should fear discussing their values and beliefs. A bigger change was needed.

We wanted to extend wider protections to students across England and Wales to prevent similar situations from happening.

We’re thrilled to share that the UK’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill finally passed. This long-awaited bill secures better protection for students to express their beliefs at university.

Thanks to your ongoing support, our campaign for free speech on campus began in November 2020, and the bill was announced in the late Queen’s Speech in May 2021. Today, we have a law.

From the start, ADF International lawyers in London advocated for robust protections. Namely for these three protections:

  • Ensure universities uphold their legal duties to protect free speech, withholding taxpayer funding if they fail
  • Require Office for Students to monitor free speech on campus, provide direct support for those with violated rights, and report annual findings
  • Ensure that where student bodies are registered charities, they comply with the law
    This bill fights back against censorship and ‘no-platforming’ and secures free expression for Students’ Union members and visiting speakers.

Academics, students, or guest presenters are empowered to seek compensation through the courts if they suffer a loss from a free speech breach.

The Office for Students has also hired a new Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom who will be able to investigate infringements of freedom of speech on university campuses when necessary.

Our polling showed that a quarter of students hide their true opinions because they clash with those promoted by their institution. A third felt their careers would be adversely affected if they shared their beliefs. This needs to change.

Though we’re happy to share this legislative victory with you, the fight for free speech continues one campus at a time.

Our Work Throughout this Process and What we Wanted to Achieve

2020 – 2023

Our Letter to the Prime Minister

Dear Prime Minister, 

Freedom of speech is one of our most precious rights. It enables the free sharing of ideas and information, allows citizens to speak out against injustice without fear of punishment, and creates an environment in which all citizens can freely share their most deeply held convictions.  

The right to freedom of speech holds together a thriving democracy and has been included in every major human rights document from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights onwards.  

It is a right that courts have identified as being particularly worthy of protection. Not only have our courts protected speech which might be favourably received or seen as inoffensive, but also speech that could offend, shock, or disturb. Indeed, many of the great ideas that we take for granted today were once considered offensive. Accordingly, as senior judge Sir Stephen Sedley has recognised: ‘freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.’ 

Of all places, university campuses should be places where freedom of speech flourishes. These institutions are intended to be crucibles of critical thinking. Students should be empowered to debate and explore all kinds of ideas – even those with which they disagree. If universities do not uphold this fundamental freedom, society at large will be poorer for it.  

However, a creeping culture of intolerance, ‘no-platforming’, ‘safe spaces’ and aggressively disruptive protest is spreading across universities. Student representative bodies in particular have frustrated the ability of students to assemble and exercise their right to free speech. It has led to a chilling effect for students and a hesitancy to express views on topics which might upset or offend others. In practice, a ‘heckler’s veto’ has been established. 

Despite acknowledgment of the problem by successive universities ministers and the Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, student societies continue to be refused affiliation because their views are allegedly ‘not in line’ with that of the student body at large; academics continue to be frustrated in their attempts to undertake research on controversial topics; and speakers continue to be ‘no-platformed’ at the insistence of vocal minority groups claiming to be offended.  

Examples are numerous and include: 

  • A midwifery student subjected to a Fitness to Practise investigation and four-month suspension because lecturers objected to her beliefs; 
  • A former Home Secretary ‘no-platformed’ at a university event just 30 minutes before she was due to speak on women in politics;
  • You, as London mayor, were disinvited from a debate on the European Union hosted by students at Kings College; 
  • A professor requiring physical security on campus due to threats made by students. 

This cannot go on. 

In the 2019 Conservative Manifesto, you promised to strengthen academic freedom and free speech at universities. We urge you to follow through on that commitment. In particular, we ask that you: 

  1. Ensure universities uphold their legal duties to protect freedom of speech on campus, and consider withholding taxpayer funding if they flout these duties.
  2. Require the Office for Students to actively monitor freedom of speech on university campuses and provide direct support to students who have had their right to freedom of speech denied – as well as reporting annually on this activity.
  3. Ensure that where student representative bodies are registered charities, they comply with charity law and Charity Commission guidance.

Failure to take this issue seriously jeopardises our country’s future. As the education secretary noted in a recent letter to The Times: ‘If Britain as a nation is to prosper, it needs a vibrant, academically curious and intellectually diverse university sector.’ 

With this in mind, we implore you to prioritise these initiatives to help ensure that the robust legal protections which exist for freedom of expression are respected, celebrated, and cherished on our university campuses. 


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The Queen's Speech to Parliament 2021

On Tuesday 11 May 2021, Her Majesty the Queen summarised the government’s agenda for the year ahead through her State re-opening of parliament. Around 30 new bills were circulated for imminent debate by parliament, and ‘speech’ was a theme that ran through a handful of these proposals.

On Protecting Speech

To the relief of many, the government has come out strong in favour of civil liberties in this bill. By introducing it, the Education Secretary has chosen to directly tackle the ever-growing problem where robust debate in the academic sphere has been downgraded by a culture of cancelling, no-platforming, and censorship.

The Problem at Hand

Recognising that in the name of offence, outrage, political-correctness, and identity politics, visiting speakers, students, academics, and non-academic staff members, have all been victims of an enthusiastic attempt to silence unpopular views, (former) Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson MP decided to fight back.

Although universities have historically been under legal obligations to protect speech, these have proved hollow in dealing with what has become a deep-rooted problem impacting students, academics and staff alike. Parliamentarians now have to vote on new, more effective measures.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Amongst other things, the bill includes a new Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion to directly investigate alleged breaches of free speech; a clause requiring universities to ‘actively promote’ speech by law and have a strong Code of Practice outlining how they respond to speech issues; and powers for the Office for Students to directly fine universities for fostering censorship. The measures therefore put new duties on universities, and rely upon an external body to monitor them.

For students like Julia Rynkiewicz and Felix Ngole who affirmed the Bible’s views on marriage and life, this is a welcomed development. Their ‘orthodox’ opinions landed their careers in muddy water when their universities came down strongly against their beliefs, and a Free Speech Champion could have provided them much needed relief. In both providing support to individuals affected by censorship and advocating for compensation on their behalf, a Champion could alter the power imbalance currently against those with minority opinions.

A deeper, cultural and legal problem

But while these steps outwardly communicate that the Department for Education thinks that free speech needs to be better protected in law, Noah Carl, raised some important points of concern with the ideas, despite overall appreciating and welcoming the reforms.

Discussing that potentially the biggest problem in universities is the hostile environment for dissidents (i.e. the habits and practices universities promote which discourages academic freedom) such as via open letters and internal investigations, doubt was cast on the efficacy of the proposals. Adding to this is the culture of self-censorship felt by students and academics alike, which the ADF International campus poll revealed. Fifty percent of respondents said they felt their peers would treat them differently if they expressed their true views on issues important to them.

This highlights a deeper, more pernicious problem that only a truly politically independent Free Speech Champion will be able to help tackle. For, if the problem in universities really is to be tackled, a robust interpretation of free speech is needed – one which is not swayed by fashionable topics – and an unashamed willingness of the Champion to uphold it.

This role will require resilience, because on topics like gender, marriage, politics and religion, popular culture has shaped and directed much of the endemic censorship infecting campuses. Without getting to the root of this problem, Williamson’s free speech legislation might only act as a sticky plaster responding to incidents that happen to be reported.

Also, while vague ‘hate speech’ laws remain, students might still be able to claim that their rights and opinions are more important than those of their more conservative peers or lecturers, regardless of this new bill. With the current interpretation of ‘hate crime’, an individual’s offence can too easily be used to silence others.

Police across the UK have been only too keen to investigate in these situations – even when there’s no chargeable crime. With even looser anti-speech laws being recently passed across the Union, like the Scottish Hate Crime Act where utterly subjective offences include ‘abusive’ speech and unintentional ‘hate’ speech can land an individual in criminal trouble, laws which are symptomatic of a censorial culture can still override the protections from the new universities bill.

Recent Data

5 percent

Only five percent of students say that the National Union of Students should not limit free speech or discussion

39 percent

Thirty-nine percent of students believe students’ unions should ban all speakers that cause offence to some students

36 percent

Thirty-six percent of students believe academic staff should be fired if they teach material that heavily offends some students.

In summary

If a Free Speech Champion is appointed to oversee the hostile university setting – which in itself is really needed – it will have to maintain a strong line on upholding the value of controversial and unpopular speech, or risk the role just being symbolic.

Also, a great deal of training for universities, students unions, and the Office for Students will be needed so that a uniform approach to handling speech issues is agreed and understood. It will make no sense for one university to champion rights while another is apathetic to them.

Yet, for the intention by the government to introduce the the new Higher Education bill should be celebrated. ADF International welcomes the bold move to try and tackle the growing problem, and remains optimistic that it will go some way to turning the tide on academic intolerance.

Free Speech on Campus FAQs

Because freedom of speech is fundamental. It’s foundational. It’s a freedom that enables other freedoms too. If you damage freedom of speech, it’s like compromising the foundations of a house – the rest of the structure will fall apart too. Without the freedom to speak we can’t fully enjoy freedom of religion, assembly, protest, or even enjoy a full life with family and friends.  

In the United Kingdom’s context, censorship at universities is a very real issue. And it is a growing problem. Within the past few years, aggressive censorship has impacted visiting speakers, student careers, academic research, and non-academic staff members; it is not a minor one-off issue. Julia is not the only person who has been impacted. Other students like Felix Ngole have had their future careers on the line for affirming the Bible’s views on marriage and life. Academics like Professor Kathleen Stock and Professor Jo Phoenix have been no-platformed and cancelled because of their reviews on gender. Mainstream societies in Oxford and Bristol universities have either been banned or done the ‘banning’ when confronted with ‘traditional’ perspectives.

Although there is existing law which already prohibits universities from restricting the free expression of students, staff and speakers, it has not been effective in stopping recurring cases of censorship. Case law also already affirms that free speech doesn’t really mean anything if it does not also protect speech that some might find offensive, shocking, or even insulting, but universities have ignored this.

The starting point is to first recognise that freedom of speech is the cornerstone of any thriving and functional democratic society. It must, therefore, be afforded a special degree of protection.

Free speech protections are deeply ingrained in British law. As Lord Justice Sir Stephen Sedley put it in a 1999 ruling: “Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative provided it does not tend to provoke violence. Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.”

The European Court of Human Rights has also noted that “freedom of expression…is applicable not only to ‘information’ or ‘ideas’ that are favourably received but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population.” 

The line between what speech is permitted and what speech is not cannot and should not simply be drawn where the speech in question runs contrary to the prevailing norms in society – the human rights regime is designed to protect minority viewpoints which may well disturb, offend or which perhaps are simply just extremely unusual.

However, freedom of speech is not an absolute right. As the question assumes, it can, be restricted in certain narrow circumstances. For example, where the words in question are intentionally designed to lead others to violence, or where the words are defamatory.

Any such restriction must be carefully and sensitively assessed, which can only be done on a case-by-case basis. Public authorities, prosecutors and law enforcers must always opt for the least restrictive approach when seeking to resolve an issue concerning free speech rights.

Your freedom to speak is something you have just by virtue of the fact that you are a human person – it isn’t something given to you by any government.

Our legal tradition recognises this. Our common law is designed to respect fundamental freedoms unless there is good reason to interfere. So, your right to free speech is evident through lack of legal restriction.

However, there are also several international declarations that positively recognise your freedom of speech. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and, for those residing in the UK, the Human Rights Act all recognise your right to speak freely.

You can become better informed on the topic of speech and censorship. ADF International highly recommends the book ‘Censored’ by Paul Coleman which charts how freedoms have been recognised and suppressed in Europe. If you are feeling led, you can support the work of ADF International with a gift. Your donation of any amount helps cover legal costs, helps tackle root causes of injustice, and helps build the next generation. Essentially, your financial partnership with ADF International ensures our core mission of defending fundamental freedoms continues worldwide. You can give above, or visit our dedicated donation page.

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