Amendment of Equality Act necessary to ensure freedom of speech on campus, says IEA expert

17 Feb 2021 01:38 PM

Marc Glendening, Head of Cultural Affairs at free market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, responded to government plans to ensure freedom of speech and expression is upheld on university campuses 

“The news that the government intends to provide more support for academics who lose their jobs because of political discrimination is to be welcomed and is long overdue.

“However, existing legislation risks undermining the Education Secretary’s proposals. Unless the government is proposing to amend the provisions of the Equality Act 2010 concerning ‘harassment’, it is difficult to envisage how freedom of speech in the higher education context can be imposed or not subject to judicial review. 

“Parts 5 and 6 of the Act make higher education providers subject to its harassment provisions. This is defined as the violating of a ‘person’s dignity’ and ‘creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person’. These are dangerously vague terms.

“The track record of many student unions and university authorities – combined with fear of retrospective legal action by students claiming to have experienced ‘degrading’, ‘humiliating’ and other supposedly harassing speech – suggests they can be expected to exploit these provisions for illiberal purposes.

“The Secretary of State, Gavin Williamson, needs to look at the Education Act 1986, section 43, that gives license to colleges to ban speakers ‘likely to express unlawful speech.’

“If free speech is to be re-established as part of our culture and politics, there needs to be a hard division between speech that is harmful and incites violence, and speech that is simply offensive.”

Notes to editors

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