Labour MP Jess Phillips said changes are required to proposed legislation to ensure non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) or confidentiality agreements do not inhibit the freedom of speech of those affected.
During a Parliamentary debate on Monday, Phillips singled out that students were being silenced by universities from speaking about the sexual abuse they have faced.
But a long-time academic freedom campaigner said he was also concerned over the wider battle over free speech, and said that a major cultural change is needed rather than a legislative solution, arguing that new laws will not make academics more confident about speaking up.
Free speech laws on university campuses will now be scrutinised in the House of Lords after the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill completed its initial progress on Monday through the House of Commons. The government has said there is a need for legislation “with teeth” that’ll safeguard free speech at university campuses.
When passed, the Bill will tighten existing legislation to make the promotion of free speech a statutory duty. This means that if universities fail to uphold free speech, they could be taken to court.
During the debate, Conservative MP Sir John Hayes said that he believed that the “paranoid issuing” of “so-called trigger warnings”—which some claim are inimical to free speech and academic freedom—was almost “beyond belief.” Trigger warnings often appear as brief tags to alert students at the beginning of a talk, film, or lecture warning them that the content may be distressing.
“Snow has turned to ice: they are no longer snowflakes, they are in deep freeze, those people who dare not even read Austen, the Brontës, or George Eliot,” said Sir Hayes.
“Even arguing for free speech now has become something that is going to be condemned,” Dennis Hayes, president of Academics for Academics Freedom (AFAF) told The Epoch Times in regards to the hyper-political correctness situation that universities face in the UK.
Academics For Academic Freedom (AFAF) maintains The Banned List, which is a list of academics, and others, who have faced attempts to censor them or ban them from campus.
The organisation’s casework often concerns academics, students, and professional or technical staff in universities who are subject to disciplinary action because of their views and/or what they may have said to colleagues, students, or have posted on social media or written articles about.
‘You Have to Win the Argument for Free Speech’
Hayes said that he was pleased that Philips raised the issue, but it’s “only on one specific issue of sexual harassment is not a broader defence of free speech.”
“Let’s have a removal of non disclosure agreements or confidentiality clauses for free speech. I have made that point many times is not original, but it’s ignored. And the university can get away with it while it’s confidential,” said Hayes.
“The battle at the moment is between whether freedom is a legislative issue or a cultural issue. Having laws is not going to make academics more confident about speaking up. You have to win the argument for free speech,” he said.
Hayes’ view was that universities are now in a “therapeutic culture.”
“It happens all the time that we have case after case after case where somebody says something that somebody finds offensive and they put in a complaint, and then universities because of their rules have to take it seriously,” he said.
“We’ve lost the distinction between behaviour and speech,” he said adding that an unfortunate phrase can be taken seriously and someone can be charged with misconduct if a student puts in a complaint about a member of staff, leading to disciplinary procedures.
“Then you can be in serious trouble if somebody takes subjective offence to what you say,” he said.
Not all disciplinary procedures in universities mention confidentiality. But breaches of confidentiality are normally treated as offences. An NDA comes at the end of a procedure.
In a piece called The Shadow University, Hayes wrote that some that have faced retribution for free speech violations do make their cases public, “many others go quietly because of the possible impact on their reputation and future careers.”
Because of what will happen with the free speech legislation, what he called “lawfare” [a play on the word ‘warfare’] will see a move to universities being taken to court.
“And if that happens, it’ll rather be about winning the legal cases, rather than winning the argument for free speech, ” said Hayes.
“but it’s important for people to be able to speak freely, that’s the main issue,” he said.
“We’ve moved from arguing for free speech and a lot of academics said ‘we’re not getting anywhere let’s just have a change in the law.’ And you can just see that happening so the secretive world will mean that there will be no change. Because everything is done behind closed doors, disciplinary procedures, and complaints” he added, saying that it will add to ” bureaucracy but not freedom of speech.”
PA Media contributed to this report.