In an extraordinary speech at the Limmud festival on Tuesday, Jo Johnson, the Minister for Universities and Science has urged universities to halt so-called no-platform policies which are used to deny extremists a platform at universities. Mr Johnson said: “However well-intentioned, the proliferation of such safe spaces, the rise of no-platforming, the removal of ‘offensive’ books from libraries and the drawing up of ever more extensive lists of banned ‘trigger’ words are undermining the principle of free speech in our universities.” Whilst we can sympathise, we are very concerned that Mr Johnson is taking action which will make it even harder to ban antisemitic extremists from our campuses.
Mr Johnson intends to enforce his view through the Office for Students (OfS), a new regulatory body for all universities being launched next week and already being touted by Mr Johnson as a body designed to take a strong approach to protecting free speech: “The Office for Students will in turn use its regulatory powers to hold them to account for ensuring that lawful freedom of speech is upheld by their staff and students.”
No-platforming is a policy adopted by the National Union of Students (NUS) to combat fascism and racism in the 1970s. At present only a small list of extreme groups are subject to no-platforming: Al-Muhajiroun, the British National Party, the English Defence League, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Muslim Public Affairs Committee UK and National Action. Izzy Lenga, the NUS Vice President for Welfare told The Guardian that “These are the only organisations no-platformed by NUS. No individual person. These dangerous groups seek (and have done before) to threaten, demonise and attack the lives of students on campus. They have absolutely no place in our colleges and universities. We are not censoring free speech; we are protecting groups of students on campus who have as much of a right to be there as any other student from groups that wish to harm us physically and mentally because of our identity.” The Union of Jewish Students also expressed support for no-platforming policies.
At a time when antisemitic speakers are frequently finding a place on campus, Mr Johnson’s stated opposition to no-platforming risks encouraging universities to allow hate speakers to indoctrinate students. Campaign Against Antisemitism has been working with Jewish students across the UK to address that intolerance and hatred on campus.
Mr Johnson made note of the risks, acknowledging the rise in antisemitic hate on campus, saying: “A racist or antisemitic environment is by definition an illiberal one that is completely in opposition the liberal tradition of our universities.” He also cited an NUS study which found that less than half (49%) of the Jewish students surveyed were comfortable with attending NUS events. He warned that “Universities cannot afford to be complacent about complying either with their duties to protect freedom of speech, or anything less than vigilant against hate speech (or other unlawful activity) masquerading as the exercise of the right to freedom of speech.” However no new measures were unveiled to tackle hate speech, with Mr Johnson discussing the past action he has taken, writing to the Chief Executive of Universities UK, setting out the role the International Definition of Antisemitism has to play in countering campus antisemitism.
Whilst Mr Johnson has recognised the potential dangers involved in prioritising free speech without sensible limitations on hate speech, he has unfortunately not announced further measures, without which the message of this speech is likely to produce conditions which are ripe for the proliferation of antisemitic ideology by making it significantly harder for campaigners to ensure that antisemitic speakers are blocked from campuses.
The Office for Students will have a difficult and vital responsibility to clearly define the parameters of free speech and hate speech, and Jewish students and anti-racism campaigners will now look to the regulator to ensure that the issue of the incitement of hatred on campus is finally properly addressed. This cannot take place without a clear and objective guide to what constitutes antisemitic hate speech. Therefore, the regulator’s early endorsement and enforcement of the International Definition of Antisemitism, which we will actively seek, is critical to the success of Mr Johnson’s efforts to unblock free speech whilst more firmly suppressing hate speech.