This letter appeared in the Guardian on 29 December 2017
Jo Johnson has decided to grasp the nettle of free speech at universities (Students attack no-platform threat, 27 December). It’s a prickly subject.
The minister seems to have “no-platforming” by student unions in his sights. However, there is a major free-speech failure by the universities themselves that is easier to fix. For some years now universities, not the student unions, have been routinely obstructing campus events that focus on Palestinian rights and their denial by Israel. The government’s own adoption of the discredited IHRA definition of antisemitism a year ago has fuelled this, with play-safe administrations seemingly unclear about the difference between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. It was Jo Johnson himself who instructed Universities UK to send this definition round to all universities – with a pointed suggestion that they adopt it for internal use. No single act in recent years has been less helpful to free speech in universities.
Campus installations (e.g. mock checkpoints) have been refused permission, and meetings face a barrage of bureaucratic barriers up to outright cancellation. The threat of disturbances by pro-Israel demonstrators has resulted in the imposition of sky-high security charges – in these cases, instead of protecting free speech, universities have negated it. In 2016 an entire international conference was cancelled on security grounds by the University of Southampton; it was subsequently held successfully in Ireland.
Freedom of speech is legally protected everywhere, and doubly so at universities – under the European convention on human rights, as well as the Education Act 1986. Universities are thus under a positive obligation to protect freedom of speech. Assuming that the minister means what he says, he shouldn’t be threatening the universities with fines for what their student unions (independent bodies) are doing. Rather, he should be telling universities in terms that their own erosion of free speech will not be tolerated.
Professor Jonathan Rosenhead
Vice-chair, Free Speech on Israel