Tertiary educational institutions have a very specific role in promoting free speech, whether verbal, in writing or on-line. This is set out in general in the Education (No.2) Act 1986, with specific limitations – monitored by the sector regulators – to manage the risk of radicalisation in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 and, for Further Education, to safeguard students. Where researchers need to access material that would otherwise be unlawful, well-established sector-wide guidance explains how to work with law enforcement authorities to ensure this can be done safely.
The Government’s ongoing review of Online Harms appears to have concluded that this existing, sector-specific, regime should not be disrupted by imposing an overlapping regime designed primarily for social media platforms. According to paragraph 1.6 of the new White Paper, the future Online Harms legislation will have an exemption for:
Online services managed by educational institutions, where those institutions are already subject to sufficient safeguarding duties or expectations. This includes platforms used by teachers, students, parents and alumni to communicate and collaborate. This is to avoid unnecessarily adding to any online safeguarding regulatory or inspection frameworks (or similar processes) already in place.
That legislation is due next year but, to judge from this White Paper, it shouldn’t affect the careful processes by which institutions, sector bodies, regulators and legislators have thought about speech over many years.