THE right to “challenge, provoke, disturb, upset, and offend” in the search for truth is worth protecting in law to give self-censoring students the freedom to speak their minds, the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, has said.
The Bishop was speaking during the Second Reading of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill in the House of Lords on Tuesday night. The Bill, which was first introduced to the House of Commons in May, seeks to strengthen the duties of higher-education providers to uphold and promote lawful freedom of speech and academic freedom.
Under the proposed legislation, individuals will be able to seek legal redress, through a new complaints scheme, for any loss that they have suffered because of a breach of these duties.
Dr Cocksworth told the House: “Students are increasingly prioritising safety, especially for minorities or vulnerable groups, over free speech. There seems to be a generational difference in what is regarded as legitimate free speech — free speech within the law.
“Yet there is also evidence that a significant proportion of students report self-censoring their own views and convictions and are reluctant to voice them in public. Similarly, among some academic staff, there was a reluctance to imperil one’s career — possible promotion, publication, or application for research funding — by expressing views that were perceived to lie outside the overall culture of the institution or department.”
This reluctance was hindering the purpose of higher education, he said. “Freedom of speech and, by extension, the right to challenge, provoke, disturb, upset, and sometimes to offend are matters which are worth protecting in law. But these imperatives derive their true value from how they sustain the fundamental purposes of higher education: seeking truth and developing wisdom.
“They are not ends in themselves, but the means by which we pursue the truth, which is to our common benefit.”
Dr Cocksworth continued: “Christian faith is rooted in the person who testified to truth in the tribunals of power and who promised the means to discern truth — the Spirit of truth. . . This is a vision of open truth-seeking which the Church has, at its worst, sought to stifle in society, but, at its best, has helped to embed in university life.”
The Bill also proposes, among other details, to extend freedom-of-speech protections to recruitment and promotion, and to create a Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom within the Office for Students.
The Bishop asked for assurances about “potential confusions” between the responsibilities of these individuals and institutions, and agreed with concerns raised by peers about the ability of the Office for Students “to dismiss unmeritorious, vexatious, and frivolous claims” that would “lead to increased litigation, including through the small claims court, which universities will inevitably need to defend, incurring expense and time, even if the case is dismissed”.
But, quoting St Augustine of Hippo — “By force we can make no one believe” — Dr Cocksworth concluded that, sometimes, “we need legitimately to use the force of law to restrain actions that adversely affect the rights and dignities of others and to protect the rights we have for free speech and freedom of expression,” and he therefore supported the Bill.
Responding at the end of the four-debate to concerns about increased litigation, Lord Howe said: “Nobody, least of all the Government, wishes to see universities burdened in this way.” The proposed tort for vexatious claims “will be resorted to very much as a backstop. The availability of the free complaints scheme through the Office for Students, which will provide a much easier and more straightforward route to redress, should make litigation unnecessary and therefore unlikely in the vast majority of circumstances.”