12:04, February 19 42 0 theguardian.com

2021-02-19 12:04:05
Hidden dangers in the proposed free speech law

I read with alarm about the proposed free speech law and the government’s plans for a university “free speech champion” (Proposed free speech law will make English universities liable for breaches, 16 February).

I want to highlight the significant work of students to promote free speech, including hosting speakers drawn from a broad political spectrum and facilitating debates about the most controversial issues of the day, such as interpretations of feminism, Islam, and gender identity.

I encourage the government to engage with our work before passing legislation that replaces it. This is not the first attempt of its kind – Toby Young’s bid to co-opt students for his Free Speech Union ended in failure when students realised the agenda: the claiming of free speech as property of the political right.

Indeed, it was after a recommendation from Prof Eric Kaufmann, an adviser to the Free Speech Union, that the free speech champion policy was proposed. I fear this means a carefully chosen arbitrator, to preside over free speech on campus, serving to further a free-speech land grab.

Benjamin Mulready-Carroll

Vice-president, Bristol Free Speech Society

Last autumn, Gavin Williamson threatened universities with cuts to funding if they did not adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism, the expanded definition of which includes accusing Israel of being a racist endeavour. Now he proposes that universities allow people to sue for alleged breaches of “free speech”. If I have this right, the government’s position is that if I say in a lecture that I believe Israel to be an apartheid state, then my university should sanction me. However, I will then be able to sue my university for infringing on my right to express my political opinions.

Also, the policy would appear to prevent questioning the existence of the state of Israel among academics and students, but also enforce the right of fascists to be invited to speak on campus. These inconsistencies suggest, perhaps, that none of this is about actually protecting free speech or combating antisemitism, but is instead a cynical exercise in weaponising both for political gain. As a Jew and an academic, these government proposals send a chill down my spine.

Dr Simon Behrman

Associate professor of law, University of Warwick