Equality laws could be amended to protect controversial speakers from no-platforming under proposals drawn up by an influential Conservative think tank.
Ministers are considering changes that would require public bodies such as universities to promote “diversity of political opinion” and protect people with views that might be “incompatible” with those of the majority.
It follows controversies where universities and student unions have used equality legislation to ban controversial speakers by citing the need to protect others from being offended or feeling alienated.
An analysis of equality laws published on Monday by think tank Policy Exchange said such bans stemmed from the public sector equality duty which placed an onus on institutions to eliminate discrimination and advance equality.
Cases included Christian unions being banned from university fresher fairs or applicants denied jobs because they held “gender critical” views where they did not accept that people could change their biological sex.
“When the public sector equality duty is understood and applied in this manner, it has the potential to promote ideological conformity rather than true diversity in settings such as recruitment and education,” said Oxford law professor Paul Yowell, the author of the analysis.
“The view that equality requires the exclusion of viewpoints that may cause offence or discomfort is corrosive of the mission of universities to educate students to consider and debate, and to test by argument, a wide range of ideas and theories.”
Equality ‘requires tolerance of differing political opinions’
The Policy Exchange paper proposed amending the duty to make it clear that equality “requires tolerance of differing political opinions and religious and philosophical worldviews, and that a mark of a healthy institution is diversity of such opinions and world views.”
It added: “Especially in educational institutions and professions, such diversity should be valued. Uniformity of opinion, and an atmosphere that stifles, marginalises or discourages dissenting views, should be avoided.
“Such an amendment to the public sector equality duty would help to promote the right to private life, freedom of thought and belief, and expression under the Human Rights Act.”
A senior Government source said ministers were studying the proposals “closely.”
“It is likely that its analysis and recommendations will inform further policy development in this important area, including any future review of the equality act,” said the source.
The Policy Exchange paper also said the Act should be amended to set a standard of “objective reasonableness” when assessing harassment claims to protect the right to free speech from being defeated by claims that views would cause offence of discomfort.
It also proposed amendments that would place greater emphasis on a defendant’s intent rather than allowing for liability on the basis of “unconscious bias.”
The changes have also been backed by former justice minister Lord Faulks who said: “At the heart of Policy Exchange’s paper lies the need to protect free speech, academic freedom, and true diversity of opinions, however unfashionable and however upsetting some may regard the expression of such opinions to be.
“None of this should be controversial to those who promoted the Act. It has identified a number of ways in which the legislation should be amended so that Act’s true intentions can be protected rather than subverted by those who, while espousing the case for diversity, advance a rather narrow view of the opinions which merit protection under the Act.”