UK’s new free-speech law could mean a bonanza for extremists

Labour warns anti-vaxxers and hate preachers to turn to the courts if barred from events

The British government has been accused of championing a free speech law that would allow extremists to sue universities and other public venues if they are barred from events.

Universities and colleges will have to promote and defend freedom of speech under a law proposed owing to concern that speakers cannot express controversial views during debates designed to stoke intellectual discussion.

A group of 150 academics and writers – including Salman Rushdie and JK Rowling – signed an open letter this month expressing concern about the phenomenon of “cancel culture”, public and online shaming for comments some deem to be objectionable.

But the opposition Labour party said the proposed new law was unnecessary and could provide fuel for hate preachers to demand their right to be heard at university events.

“This actually gives succour to people who want to sow hate and division – and their lawyers,” Kate Green, the education spokeswoman for Labour, the main opposition party, told Sky News.

“What we don’t need is legislation that now allows Holocaust deniers, anti-vaxxers, people spreading hate speech to run off to the courts if a student union or university says ‘you’re not welcome’.”

Experts have identified cases in which students were radicalised while attending university before a clampdown on extremist campus speakers. Groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir operate a policy of targeting universities to grow their following despite concerns about extremist messaging.

University of Greenwich launched an inquiry into campus extremism after former student Michael Adebolajo was jailed for the murder of soldier Lee Rigby on a London street in 2013.

It found evidence of “increased [extremist] activism” in a year Adebolajo attended but said there was no link between campus events and his radicalisation.

This actually gives succour to people who want to sow hate and division – and their lawyers

The proposed legislation will return to Parliament for debate on Monday. Labour urged members of the ruling Conservative party to join it to vote against the law.

Under the legislation, a regulator would have powers to fine academic institutions that fail to defend freedom of speech, and speakers could secure compensation through the courts if those rules are breached.

A group representing 140 universities has also warned of the unintended consequences of the legislation and the possibility of institutions being tied up in court disputes.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson previously said Holocaust deniers would never be protected.

The government said the new law was needed after cancellations of planned talks including an event in Bristol at which the Israeli ambassador was due to speak.

It cited a 2019 academic report that found “signs of a ‘chilling effect’” on campus.

“Some students reported reluctance to express their views for fear of disagreeing with their peers,” the government said in documents published about the proposed new law.

But Labour said only six of 10,000 campus events held in the past year for which data was available were cancelled – and in most cases this was because they lacked the correct paperwork.

Updated: July 12th 2021, 11:40 AM