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Controversial UK Freedom of Speech bill needs a mask to protect from hate

The UK government has been accused of giving extremist rhetoric a platform by bolstering protections for hate speech; introducing legislation that would enable individuals to sue universities and student groups.

The controversial bill, entitled the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, has been described as “troubling and dangerous” by Labour and has now passed its second reading, with 367 MPs voting in favour of Labour’s amendment and 216 voting against. The amendment condemned what it called a “hate speech protection bill”, stating that its adoption could provide:

“legal protection and financial recompense to those seeking to engage in harmful and dangerous speech on university campuses, including Holocaust denial, racism and anti-vaccination messages.”

Under the government’s new legislation, guest speakers will have legal recourse to seek compensation, should they feel their rights were infringed upon. The Office for Students would also have the right to impose fines if universities breach “a condition to defend freedom of speech”.

For example, the leader and founder of the far-right English Defence League, Tommy Robinson, has been repeatedly barred from speaking at UK universities, including Edinburgh, Durham and Oxford-Brookes, due to security concerns. Under the new bill, with the prospect of fines and legal action, universities may be inclined to allow individuals such as Robinson, to disseminate their hateful rhetoric, rather than using their judgement to gauge the harm his brand of hate speech can cause.

Shadow education secretary, Kate Green, said that the bill effectively enshrines legal protections for “hateful, harmful and divisive speech. The kind of speech that we would not tolerate in this House would be protected in universities across the country.”

“It is a bill that creates a new legal framework to allow those responsible for such harmful speech to take legal action against universities, eating into the resources that ought to be educating our young people and supporting our world-class research programmes,” she said,

“It is a bill that is unnecessary, it is poorly drafted, but above all it is deeply wrong, and on this side of the House we will not support it.”

The bill has also been the subject of criticism for being deeply redundant and legislating for an insignificant number of cases. Only six of the 10,000 events scheduled to take place last year were cancelled, with four failing to provide the necessary paperwork, one moving to another venue and another deemed to be part of a pyramid scheme. Additionally, data released by the Office for Students states that only 53 of 59,574 events with external speakers were denied permission in 2017-18.

However, proponents of the legislation have said that their support for the bill is based completely on the strengthening of free speech and academic freedom, with its announcement in February coming after the government stated that a number of “individuals had been expelled, fired, or demoted for speaking out on certain topics.”

Senior Conservative party members have also stressed the need for discussion and debate to take place without “growing intolerance”. Education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said that “Our universities must not become spaces where ideas are debated within a narrow consensus with those who challenge majority views subject to censorship themselves,” adding that:

“It’s absolutely clear that this bill will not and never will create a platform for Holocaust deniers. 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.”

This conviction was shared by David Davis MP who said that “The bill before us is to correct a small, and I grant you it is small, but extraordinarily important symbolic aspect of this modern McCarthyism, namely an attempt to no-platform a number of speakers including Amber Rudd, Julie Bindel, Peter Hitchens, Peter Tatchell and others. I hope it is just a first step actually in a programme to bring free speech back to Britain.”

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