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The Free Speech Union’s Key Role in Developing Government Legislation

Karam Bales examines the close links between the FSU, the Office for Students and the Government’s drive to legislate on freedom of speech

Toby Young from Free Speech Union attends Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, London, June 2022. Photo: Guy Corbishley/Alamy

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Toby Young resigned from the board of higher education regulator the Office for Students (OfS) in 2018 after controversy over a string of offensive tweets directed at women as well as comments about working-class students and eugenics.

In 2020, Young launched the Free Speech Union (FSU), and in 2023 Professor Arif Ahmed, a former Advisory Council member of the FSU was appointed to be the OfS’s new “free speech czar” tasked with protecting academics and students who make controversial comments due to legislation the FSU lobbied for, advised on, and amended.

From being forced to resign, Young now leads an organisation which is involved in developing Government legislation such as the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act and has begun working with councils to “to enshrine free speech in its policies, procedures, code of conduct and constitution.”

Miriam Cates MP speaking at the Northern Research Group conference in Doncaster in 2023. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Images/Alamy

When Miriam Cates MP was contacted by Byline Times to offer a right of reply for another article, the response came not from her office but from the account of Samuel Armstrong.

Armstrong’s role as a freelance political consultant for individual MPs, groups of MPs and political campaigns, demonstrates how the FSU works closely with elements of the Conservative Party to shape legislation.

His current anchor clients are the FSU, where he is Legislative Affairs Director, and the New Conservatives grouping of MPs, for which Cates is a director, and which received a £50,000 donation in December from the Dubai-based Legatum Institute Foundation, the investment fund behind GB News.

Armstrong’s role for the FSU entails working with the FSU’s Legal Advisory Council to draft and propose amendments to bills that are frequently either taken up or proposed in a different format by the government.

His LinkedIn profile says “Unlike all too many, we really get into the nitty-gritty of the legislative process and use all the levers of Parliamentary procedure to win.”

Major recent campaigns have included the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act, changes to the Online Safety Bill, the Workers Protection Bill being dropped, and Payment Services Regulations.

Think Tanking Academia

FSU member Professor Abhishek Saha explained the organisation’s role in producing the Higher Education Bill in an article for the US-based Heterodox Academy in February 2024, providing insight into how legislation is being created through the input of think tanks and the FSU.

In February 2021, the UK Government issued a policy paper setting out proposals to strengthen protections for free speech in response to reports published by the think tanks Cieo, Policy Exchange, and Civitas. All three reports faced criticism.

As reported by openDemocracy, Civitas’ report was produced by compiling often misleading media reports and looking at university websites, marking down universities if they had anti-racism training or procedures to anonymously report harassment, concluding that “universities have adopted, wholesale, a mutation and splicing of past radicalisms that include Marxism, postmodernism, feminism, Freudianism, and Maoism”. Research by the BBC’s Reality Check team contradicted this.

Initially lobbying for the bill when the Government was weighing up its merits, the FSU then advised the Government on what to include in the legislation and worked on its amendments. 

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On 7 December 2022, the House of Lords voted to remove the Bill’s statutory tort clause completely.  The tort mechanism allows civil claims to be brought in the County Court against higher education providers and student unions if they breach their new free speech obligations.

Saha explains in the Heterodox Academy article that he then met with Claire Coutinho MP in February 2023, and says the FSU convinced the Government to amend Clause Four, not to address concerns, but to further expand the tort mechanism so that financial losses from legal action included subtler forms of loss, for example, humiliation, loss of reputation, or restriction of access to research data.

Another amendment added in the Commons was an expansion of the bill’s academic freedom protections to beyond an individual’s “field of expertise”.

 The Commons voted 283 to 161 to reinstate the tort in full and it was passed in the Lords on 10 May 2023 after it was agreed that a complainant would need to have exhausted the free speech complaints scheme before going to court unless bringing civil proceedings for an injunction only.

Setting the Boundaries of Debate

The legislation’s complaints system will be overseen by the OfS’s new Director for Free Speech and Academic Freedom, Professor Arif Ahmed. Appointed to the position in August 2023, he left the post of Commissioner to the Equality and Human Rights Commission which he’d been appointed to in late 2022 by Kemi Badenoch MP.

Ahmed was previously a member of the FSU’s Advisory Council and was part of the group of academics focused around Cambridge University that developed into the FSU.


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Despite its stance against cancel culture, the FSU website “celebrated” the “critical role” played by Ahmed after his campaign at Cambridge forced plans to allow anonymous reporting of microaggressions to be dropped, and resulted in the resignation of Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University in 2021.

Details of the new complaints system have yet to be released, however on 25 March, when Ahmed was interviewed on the Today Programme regarding what would be considered a breach of free speech, he was unable to provide examples, stating that each case would be judged on individual merit.

Subsequently, the OfS announced a consultation period, lasting until 24 May, on proposed new guidance for higher education providers and students’ unions on fulfilling “new free speech duties which are expected to be from August this year”.

Ahmed will have considerable influence in setting the boundaries of debate in higher education. Critics have raised concerns that the threat of large financial sanctions could create a climate of fear where individuals feel unable to challenge abusive or derogatory comments.

This March, Bromley Council in London has passed a proposal to “enshrine free speech” above “HR-style inquisition and political snitching” after councillors worked for many months with the FSU to write the policy. The policy will protect strongly held beliefs and allow councillors to “challenge, without repercussions.” The FSU is hoping other councils will follow Bromley.

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