Freedom of speech

Why does free speech matter?

Freedom of speech and academic freedom are fundamental to higher education.

The core mission of universities and colleges is the pursuit of knowledge, and the principles of free speech and academic freedom are fundamental to this purpose. They provide a necessary context for advancing new ideas, encouraging productive debate and challenging conventional wisdom.

All staff and students are entitled to teach, learn and research in a culture that values vigorous debate, including – or perhaps particularly – in relation to difficult or contentious or discomforting topics.

As the statutory regulator for higher education in England, the OfS wants every student to have a fulfilling experience of higher education that enriches their lives and careers.

Students will not have a high quality education if that education is not grounded in freedom of speech. That includes freedom of speech for themselves, for fellow students, for those who teach or supervise them and for visiting speakers.

One of our strategic goals is that ‘providers secure free speech within the law for students, staff and visiting speakers’. 

What do we mean by free speech?

The OfS stands for the widest possible definition of freedom of speech: anything within the law.

Free ‘speech’ includes written materials and other forms of expression. It is not limited to the spoken word.

Freedom of speech ‘within the law’ is protected. Unlawful speech is not protected.

However, there is no need to point to a specific legal basis for a particular speech. Rather, the starting point is that speech is permitted unless it is restricted by law. Free speech includes lawful speech that may be offensive and hurtful to some.

Speech that amounts to unlawful harassment or unlawful discrimination does not constitute free speech within the law and is not protected.

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Published 13 September 2023

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