fbpx

Call on: 01926 882006

COLUMN: Higher Education Free Speech Bill or Hate Speech Bill?

It’s been a challenging couple of weeks working through the Higher Education (Free Speech) Bill Committee – particularly given its content. That said, I’ve enjoyed the intensity of scrutinising Government legislation.
 
To briefly summarise mine and Labour’s position, the Free Speech Bill is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. No-platforming categorically isn’t an issue with roughly 0.2% of speaker events cancelled at universities in 2020. Though there is some evidence to suggest academics and students self-censor, it is disputable that this only applies to those on the right of the political spectrum – while existing legislation already protects them adequately from threats against their free speech. It is also true that universities have always been one of the only places in society that caters for idealism and anti-establishment politics, and introducing state sanctions will not change that on any campus across the UK. Just as it wouldn’t change the more right-wing views of pensioners in any bingo hall around the country.
While trying to set an honourable precedent, the bill – if passed – will only set a dangerous one. Protecting those who use legal but harmful speech could lead to unacceptable oversight and interference in the Higher Education sector from Government appointees at the Office for Students (OfS). But it could also mean financial troubles for already cash-strapped universities and students unions – as well as a legal muddle in how the statute should be used and who it should protect. Holocaust deniers, extremists, racists, anti-vaxxers? We hope not. But in its current form, this cannot be ruled out – and ministers know it.
 
Here are a few reflections from the last 10 days.
 
My Labour colleagues and I cross-examined some of the Free Speech Bill’s biggest cheerleaders. Professor Matt Goodwin from the University of Kent and Professor Eric Kaufmann of Birkbeck University who argue that a ‘chilling effect’ threatens the positions of right-leaning academics and silences right-leaning students.
 
But at one point during proceedings, the mask slipped. Professor Goodwin told the committee he would invite BNP and National Front speakers to campus. This is where we see the delicate interplay between free speech and the rights and protections of others. So, Professor Goodwin would put minority ethnic students in a position where they might have to defend themselves against racists who oppose their inclusion in UK society? Is it right that students who don’t want to hear the racist and borderline fascist views of the National Front on campus are MADE to? Is this the real cost of ‘free speech.’ Aren’t protections for students’ free speech, safety, and security paramount?
 
Even 46% of Conservative voters do not support the Free Speech Bill if it legally protects racists, extremists, Islamophobes and Holocaust deniers, according to a survey published last week.
 
And after carefully reviewing every clause and amendment in the bill, I firmly believe ministers cannot rule out protections for such individuals. If it’s passed, standby for scandal after scandal. As people have been fearing, this is less a Free Speech Bill and more a Hate Speech Bill.
 
And on the subject of dangerous precedents, last Wednesday the Union of Jewish Students contacted me regarding concerns the bill will increase antisemitism on campus, afford legal protections to Holocaust deniers and permit forms of antisemitism that aren’t considered illegal. And last Wednesday afternoon, the Government voted down Labour’s Genocide Denial Amendment which would have provided a strong legal basis to prevent any protections for Holocaust deniers or anti-Semites who appear on campus. Shameful.
 
The bill features 84 amendments already across 18 pages. And most of them, predictably, were voted down by the Government. As legislation goes, it’s less a dog’s breakfast, more a canine meal plan.
 
It is worth being reminded that the 1974 Red Lion Square disorders – and the tragic killing of Warwick University student Kevin Gately – showed what happens when racists are emboldened.
 
I was disappointed that Professor Kaufmann, when I questioned him, couldn’t make the connection between legally protecting forms of hate speech at universities and increasing violence in the public sphere. We do not need more polarisation and hate in our society – it leads to violence. And I speak days after the debate reflecting on the death of Labour MP Jo Cox who was assassinated by a far-right extremist.