What is the best free speech practice in universities?


The Best Free Speech Practice (BFSP) project is made up of lawyers and free speech campaigners who are working to clarify and disseminate what the legal requirements and their implications in practice at UK universities actually are. It is clear that there is widespread misunderstanding of how onerous universities’ obligations already are and that, as a result, there are far too many compliance failures.

BFSP has produced various detailed Statements for (mainly) English universities about the requirements and their implications in practice. They plan to move on to Scottish and Welsh universities when they can. Here is an overview of the BFSP statements:

  • A statement for universities of the new legal requirements and their implications (14 pages), a good but not excessively detailed overview of this complex web of requirements.
  • A statement for students’ unions of the new legal requirements and their implications.
  • Requirements re governance and appointing a Free Speech Officer: the duty to secure free speech means having sufficient management focus.
  • The Equality Act after the Forstater case: protected viewpoints. The recent Forstater case has established that gender-critical views are ‘protected characteristics’ for the purposes of the Equality Act. Logically, views on other matters of political or societal controversy should therefore also be treated as protected characteristics.
  • Introductory EDI courses: potential free speech problems. Important in helping English universities devise courses that avoid free speech pitfalls and controversies.
  • Decolonising the curriculum”: potential free speech problems. Again, will help English universities avoid mistakes, compliance failures and controversy.
  • Legal and compliance risks of relationships with external campaign groups. These can lead to enforcing the agendas of these groups pursuant to “no debate” policies and the like, in breach of various legal requirements. These relationships need careful handling, and a number of organisations, including various UK universities, have disassociated from these organisations as a result. 
  • Minimum requirements for staff and student behaviour to ensure English universities’ compliance with their free speech obligations.

AFAF branches may find these statement useful when discussing the implications of the new Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023 with their universities.

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