Motion A

Part of Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill - Commons Amendment – in the House of Lords at 6:00 pm on 10 May 2023.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated 6:00, 10 May 2023

My Lords, I am very glad to be here, to hopefully see the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill fly through at last and become law. I am also pleased to see that some attempt has been made to restore some teeth to this important legislation. It is true that it is not the full tort that some of us argued for—indeed, the very remedy the Government themselves initially suggested was necessary to deal with the ever-growing problem of cancel culture on university campuses—but at least those who have their free speech rights impinged on can secure a low-cost injunction in a county court. That would restore some of the speaker events and debates that have been blocked—effectively censored—rather than having to rely on the hugely expensive judicial review in the High Court as the only option, or the internal methods that people have talked about but about which I am more dubious.

I also welcome the amendment’s expansion of the definition of “loss” beyond simply financial loss. Of course, loss of one’s income or of costs incurred organising an event should be subject to compensation, but, as has been said, the real loss is so often reputational: that horrendous label of “bigot” that hangs around and is hard to shake off.

I recommend that everyone should read Steven Greer’s new book, Falsely Accused of Islamophobia: My Struggle Against Academic Cancellation. Professor Greer, a former professor at the University of Bristol, had his 36-year blemish-free teaching career totally upended in 2021 when a small group of students accused him of ridiculing Islam and mocking the Koran in his course on Islam, China and the Far East. The complaint was baseless and he was totally exonerated after an official investigation, but, in his telling, the university failed to adequately defend him or academic freedom. The investigation dragged on for five months. The process was used as a punishment, in a way—so we do need the remedies. Worse, his module was withdrawn when he returned to work, fuelling the idea that, somehow, he really was Islamophobic. He felt that his reputation was tarnished—although he is now working as a research director with a progressive Muslim Imam in Bristol, so there is a happy story there.

This example urges me to stress to the Minister that it is imperative that this Government—indeed any Government—work with cancelled students and academics in drawing up the Bill’s suggested statutory code for complaints scheme and much improving it. I also hope that the soon-to-be-appointed free speech champion might initiate a call for evidence so that we might assess which issues are prone to cancellation and the scale of the problem that often goes on behind the scenes, behind the traditional no-platform headlines.

Only today, a student from St John’s College, Cambridge, Charlie Bentley-Astor, contacted me because a film showing that she had organised of a documentary, “Birthgap—Childless World”, had been cancelled. A campaign by certain student activists and Varsity magazine objected to the film’s director, Stephen Shaw—who has flown over from the US to speak at the event on Friday—because, shock horror, he appeared on a Jordan Peterson podcast. But that is all grist to the mill. Ms Bentley-Astor defended her opponents’ right to protest outside the film—because, thankfully, some students are liberal and believe in civil liberties. However, due to the mere threat of a demonstration, and despite the film organisers creating a detailed risk assessment and organising stewards, the college has now called off the film, using the familiar formula that the event would be too disruptive and it is thinking of the safety of the attendees. Therefore, I think that the threat of civil action, of something harder, is sometimes necessary.

In that instance, I also urge the Government to make this legislation a real living instrument of free speech, not a box-ticking exercise for university managers. I credit the noble Lord, Lord Mendoza, provost at Oriel, for recently hosting a Living Freedom event on the lessons we can learn from Locke and Milton about free speech. It was well attended by students. That is the kind of thing we need: to be positive, not to whinge.

Not all university leaders are quite as bold, and I want to urge that this is where we end. Last week at Edinburgh University, a film screening due to be hosted by the Edinburgh section of Academics for Academic Freedom was cancelled for a second time. The film, “Adult Human Female”, is a gender-critical documentary, and we know how controversial that is. It was due to go ahead and given the go-ahead by the university, undeterred even by the Edinburgh branch of UCU cheering on a protest comprising a loudspeaker blaring out vile, frankly sexist, speeches. However, when masked activists shut off entry to the venue, university security did not remove them. The film was not shown again. I hope that the Bill will be used to look at how we tackle such examples as the heckler’s veto: maybe injunctions are necessary. I hope that the law will encourage the likes of Edinburgh University’s leadership to personally host the film, guarantee that it happens, and show some courage—which is what we need, as well as the law and a minor tort.

I urge all of us here to proudly wield this law as a proactive instrument to increase freedom, to support those many young students who want to hear diverse opinions, and to cheer on those academics who refuse to be silenced or bullied. It is not often that I have reasons to be cheerful about legislation in this place, especially pro-freedom legislation. Sitting through the Online Safety Bill scares me to death in terms of free speech. But on this one, I think that the Government have got it right, and I am proud to say: hear hear, let us get on with it.