Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Debate

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Department: Leader of the House
Lord Strathcarron Portrait Lord Strathcarron (Con)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as a publisher, often of higher education academic titles, which increasingly are digital-only and therefore easier to take down or cancel than physical books. I will come on to the relevance of that in a moment. Luckily for us all, as I am the last seven-minute speaker, a lot of the points I wanted to make have been expressed very eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Willetts, and the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, so this is a very shortened version of my speech.

Although any encouragement of free speech is welcome, there is an element here of the Government giving free speech with one hand and taking it away with the other. For example, an academic may now be able to lecture on a controversial subject—say, genetic or, heaven help us, gender politics or identity, all of which would come under legal free speech. But if that professor, one of his or her students or the institution posted that online and somebody out there who read it suffered hurt feelings, as they are bound to, and quickly organised a Twitter mob, which is not difficult to do, the Online Safety Bill would classify the content as “legal but harmful”—what a minefield those three words are—and outsource censorship of it to Silicon Valley AI bots, in exactly the same way as the CCP outsources its censorship of WeChat and Weibo, the Chinese equivalents.

In Committee, I hope we will be able to future-proof the good parts of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill from the bad parts of the Online Safety Bill.