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The House of Lords has scrapped academics and students’ right to sue under recent amendments to campus free speech law.
The amendment was voted through with 213 votes in favour and 172 against.
The Higher Education Freedom of Speech Bill was introduced in May last year to protect against ‘cancel culture’ and political correctness following a trend of universities deplatforming public figures for their outspoken views.
But Clause 4 of the Bill, which provided statutory tort allowing legal action against universities over free speech violations, has raised concerns among vice chancellors and Tory peers.
They believed it could lead to potential endless and counterproductive litigation and people sidestepping the freedom of speech director in the Office for Students.
Former universities minister, Lord Willetts, said the tort “risks duplicating functions of the Office for Students and imposing unnecessary additional costs on universities.”
Lord Moylan said Clause 4 was likely to invite cautious behaviour where speakers perceived to be controversial would simply be not invited to avoid risk of litigation.
He said: “This would produce the very opposite of what is intended by the Bill.”
Jo Phoenix, a professor whose invitation to speak at Essex University was cancelled after some staff and students protested and labelled her a transphobe.
She said she felt abandoned by the Lords’ decision to drop Clause 4.
Baroness Smith of Newnham, who opposed the amendment, also expressed doubts regarding the effectiveness of internal complaints schemes which tend to advantage universities over complainants.
She said: “If free speech complaints must always be brought first to an internal complaints procedure, the university will be tempted to mark its own homework favourably or to spin out the process.”
Free Speech Union, an advocacy group which aims to counter cancel culture, similarly believed that the Bill’s ability to protect free speech on campus is severely diluted without the tort.
The group wrote on Twitter: “The only way to make sure universities uphold the new free speech duties in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is to give aggrieved parties the option of suing them in the county court.”
We agree. The only way to make sure universities uphold the new free speech duties in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is to give aggrieved parties the option of suing them in the county court.
— The Free Speech Union (@SpeechUnion) December 1, 2022
The Bill will return to the House of Commons next year for consideration of the Lords’ amendments, and free speech warriors hope the tort will be reinstated.