Labour is calling on Conservative MPs to support a bid to ditch the Government’s plans for a new free speech law on university campuses over claims it could protect speakers who engage in Holocaust denial.
The Government say the Bill, announced in last week’s Queen’s Speech, will encourage “open intellectual debate” and counter the “chilling effect of censorship on campus”.
For the first time, student unions will be legally obliged to protect freedom of speech and could be taken to court by cancelled speakers.
Labour want the proposals to be scrapped after an admission by Universities Minister Michelle Donelan that the planned legislation could give legal protection to antisemites on university campuses.
Donelan said: “A lot of these things that we would be standing up for would be hugely offensive, would be hugely hurtful.”
The minister was responding to a question on BBC Radio 4‘s PM programme on whether Holocaust deniers would have the right to speak at campuses – and could demand compensation if blocked – because such denial is lawful in this country.
Asked if the historian and Holocaust denier such as David Irving would be able to give a talk if invited to do so by a student group, Donelan said: “What this bill is designed to do is to ensure we protect free speech that is lawful.”
Radio 4’s Evan Davies then said:”Holocaust deniel is legal, isn’t it?”
The minister than responded saying:”Yes… Obviously, it would depend on exactly what they were saying, whether they were straying in racism, into hate crimes.”
She then added: “There is a difference between condoning and supporting something when standing up for free speech.”
Labour is warning that unless the Government shelve the Bill it will force votes in the House of Commons leaving Tory MPs having to address the prospect of legislation that could give a green light to antisemites to speak on campuses.
Shadow education minister Kate Green told Jewish News: “It is shocking that the Government is planning to give Holocaust deniers free rein across our universities.
“The Queen’s Speech sets out no plans to boost young people’s wellbeing or recover lost learning and no plans to create the jobs and training opportunities young people need, yet the Conservatives can find time to protect people whose only aim is to cause deep hurt and offence.
“These are clearly the wrong priorities for Britain and the Government should drop these plans that would have dangerous and deeply troubling consequences.”
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson responded to a question in the Commons about the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill by saying Holocaust deniers would “never, never, never” be protected.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesperson also insisted: “Holocaust denial is not something the government would ever accept.”
But the Labour MP Charlotte Nichols, who has expressed concerns about the implication of the Bill, tweeted last Thursday: “I was accosted outside the Chamber by a Conservative MP who said that ‘we should be able to debate even the darkest moments of our history’.”
Universities have already dismissed the new laws as unnecessary, warning of increased bureaucracy and insisting free-speech problems on campus are being hugely exaggerated.
Jewish News understands that some communal representatives have also raised concern that the proposals would encourage far-right and Islamist voices to be heard more frequently on campuses in the UK.
Ironically, one of the Government’s arguments in favour of the Bill was that it would prevent the use of so-called “cancel culture” preventing pro-Israeli voices from being heard at student unions.
One communal source said they found the proposals “confusing.”
Another senior figure said they had been given assurances by civil servants that the Bill was watertight and that there would be no loopholes.
Labour argue that there is no evidence to support the Government’s claim that action is needed to protect free speech in this way.
They point to a survey of 61 university students’ unions conducted by the education think-tank Wonkhe last year with found only six out of 10,000 events had been cancelled – four of them were due to incorrect paperwork, one was moved to a larger venue, and one was to promote a pyramid scheme.
An Office for Students (OfS) data collection exercise in England in 2017-18 found that just 53 of 59,574 (0.09%) event requests made under an external speakers process at universities were refused permission.
The government appeared to have relied heavily on a document produced by the Policy Exchange think-tank when drawing up the Bill which showed that groups who considered themselves right-wing were refraining from airing their views or researching topics over fear of being cancelled.
The universities minister has since sought to clarify her remarks on Holocaust deniers, saying: “Let me be clear, antisemitism is abhorrent and will not be tolerated at our universities. This bill will protect and promote lawful free speech.
“Universities will still need to adhere to the Equality Act, the Prevent Duty and ensure that speakers do not incite violence, harassment or hate crimes.”
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