Uni watchdog: ‘Stop using equality laws to restrict free speech’

University staff must not use equality law to silence free speech on campus, the head of the universities watchdog has warned.

Susan Lapworth, Chief Executive of the Office for Students (OfS), warned higher education institutions that policies promoting one protected characteristic “to the detriment of others” may “amount to unlawful discrimination” and could restrict free speech.

The watchdog has published a new briefing to highlight recent evidence on the issue and provide guidance to universities on their legal duties to uphold free speech.

‘Growing evidence’

Lapworth commented: “Too often we see universities not properly understanding that legal framing, and perhaps leaning more fully into the equality duties than we think that the law supports, and we are concerned that that is acting to curtail free speech in some circumstances.”

She said: “In recent years there has been growing evidence that some academics are self-censoring and that a growing proportion of students are concerned about freedom of speech. That hurts us all because university should be a place where difficult topics are discussed and debated freely.”

Next year, the OfS is set to make freedom of speech one of its top priorities and will survey academics about their impressions regarding the issue for the first time.


Dr Hollie Chandler, Head of Policy at the Russell Group, commented: “The OfS is right to highlight the importance of free speech and academic freedom and university leaders are already playing an active role in upholding these values on campuses around the UK.”

Toby Young, Director of the Free Speech Union, said the OfS’s new guidance will be “hugely beneficial” if it leads to universities taking “vexatious complaints less seriously”.

The watchdog’s warning comes as the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is progressing through Parliament, which will put a new duty on universities to “actively promote” freedom of speech.


Last month, a Cambridge University student warned that free speech at universities will be lost if students fear listening to people whom ‘woke’ activists object to, saying “there will be no-one left to listen”.

Detransitioner Charlie Bentley-Astor, who studies English, highlighted the pressure on students by some staff and fellow scholars not to attend a lecture by gender-critical author Helen Joyce at Gonville and Caius College.

Bentley-Astor said: “If the current culture of shame and intimidation has left people too afraid to even listen, what then is the future of free speech? Apathy and atrophy go hand-in-hand.”

Also see:


Uni students fear being offended

Cambridge Prof: ‘Students need to be inoculated against cancel culture’

Hostile woke culture stifling free speech in universities

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