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Free speech bill could restrict research, say lawyers

Image: Christopher Penler, via Shutterstock

Lawyers query impact on multi-disciplinary activity from wording of free speech bill

Legal experts have questioned how a provision within the proposed free speech bill to protect academics’ freedom of expression “within their field of expertise” could play out in practice.

A bill designed to protect and promote free speech in higher education is making its way through parliament, after it was introduced on 12 May. The government has promised to strengthen universities’ duties around academic freedom and the Conservative party included a pledge to act on free speech in its 2019 election manifesto.

If universities, student unions or colleges breach their duties under the planned bill, they could face fines or other sanctions.

But some have raised concerns that wording in the bill defining academics’ freedom as “within the law and within their field of expertise” could be restrictive for researchers.

Gary Attle, a partner at the Mills & Reeve law firm, told Research Professional News that the draft bill “will need to be carefully considered and debated in Parliament”.

“Will the attempt to define the parameters of academic freedom in legislation lead to difficult arguments about whether something said was in someone’s “field of expertise”? How broad or narrow will that be defined? Are the borders of an area of expertise neatly delineated?” he asked.

Attle also questioned whether the draft legislation could “have an impact on multi-disciplinary academic activity”. “Will the draft legislation, if enacted, inhibit a pushing of boundaries in knowledge by those experienced in academic study and research, which could prejudice our collective endeavour to understand the world better and the global challenges we face?”

But Julian Sladdin, a partner at Pinsent Masons, said that while the bill “is more restrictively worded than the present legislation” as it “expressly limits protections to matters within an academic’s field of expertise rather than the wider right to question and test received wisdom and put forward new ideas and controversial opinions”, there had always been “a distinction between freedoms linked to an academic’s work and the wider rights regarding freedom of speech in universities”.

“In reality, protections around academic freedom have always been linked to an academic’s employment status and their ability to engage in controversial research, within the law, within their chosen field of expertise rather than freedom of speech,” he said.

Sladdin explained that when an academic shares an opinion outside of their field of expertise, their comments are “unlikely to be covered by the present protections either”.

“While the bill makes it much clearer that academics are not entitled to special privileges, as a matter of academic freedom, when commenting on matters outside their specialist fields, they still have a right to freedom of speech within the law under the bill and [higher education institutions] must promote and protect this in the same manner as they would for anyone else,” he said.