Is campus free speech bill an ‘opportunity’ for Shoah deniers? Jewish groups ask for clarity

If passed, the legislation will impose freedom of speech duties on universities and student unions


OXFORD, UNITED KINGDOM - NOVEMBER 26: Students and locals protest outside the Oxford Union Debating Society, November 26, 2007 in Oxford, United Kingdom. The Oxford Union debating team has invited Nick Griffin, the leader of the British National Party (BNP), and David Irving, who was jailed in Austria for holocaust denial, to speak at a forum on the limits of free speech. (Photo by Sebastian Meyer/Getty Images)

The government is under pressure from Jewish groups to clarify how its campus free speech bill would protect students from antisemitism amid claims it could be leveraged by extremists.

The government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill proposes to impose freedom of speech duties on universities and student unions and give fining powers to a regulator. 

The new bill passed its second reading on Monday amid criticism from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer it would give Holocaust deniers and other extremists “the opportunity to sue their way to a platform at universities.”

In a statement to the JC, Board of Deputies President Marie van der Zyl noted Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s pledge that the bill would not protect Holocaust deniers but added it would be “extremely helpful” for the government “to set out in detail exactly how those promoting such despicable views would be unable to use this legislation to achieve their aims.”

The Community Security Trust called for measures to protect Jewish students in a statement to the JC. 

“We hope these proposals include appropriate measures so that the essential right to free speech is balanced with the rights of Jewish students not to be subjected to antisemitism at their university, whether this is from fellow students, visiting speakers or academics and lecturers. 

“We also hope that Jewish Societies will be protected from the kind of onerous security costs imposed by some universities in the past, that have made it impossible for some Jewish Societies to host visiting speakers from Israel because of the threat that their meetings will be disrupted by extremists,” the organisation said.

Mr Williamson told MPs on Monday the bill “will not and never will create a platform for Holocaust deniers”, citing protections against hate speech enshrined in existing legislation. 

“The 1986 Public Order Act, the 2010 Equality Act, introduced by Labour, as well as the Prevent duties in 2015 – this bill if made an act will not create the space to tolerate Holocaust deniers and never shall,” he said. 

Media lawyer Mark Lewis said he did not believe neo-Nazi claimants would receive damages should a claim be brought forward and added that “sunlight will be the best disinfectant.”

“I’d sooner have a law that permits JSocs and risks the occasional neo-Nazi to speak to a near empty audience where sunlight will be the best disinfectant,” he said.

The Union of Jewish Students said it was working closely with communal groups and government.

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