Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Written evidence submitted to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill Public Bill Committee by HOPE not hate (HEFSB27)

Allowing the Far Right o n Campus Won t Increase Free Speech

1. HOPE not hate’s concern with this legislation is that it could have the opposite of its intended effect. Rather than increasing the number of voices and perspectives heard on university campuses , it could open the door to the far right who will use it as an opportunity to shut down the voices of already marginalised communities.

2. This current legislation appears not to take into account the quality or value of the speech it demands to be hea rd on campus. It wrongly assumes that diversity of opinion always leads to attainment of truth , and that the correct argument will always win if debate d. Whilst this would be wonderful if true, this optimism ignores the possibility that ill-informed opinions, or outright lies like Holocaust denial and race science, will flood the debate and that "he who shouts the loudest" will drown out others. At worst, debates can become inundated with proven falsities, which risk legitimising topics that objectively are not legitimate. Just debating the Holocaust makes it a debate, when it is not.

3. Such attitudes are often based on the incorrect notion that "sunlight is the best disinfectant" and "the truth will out". The Holocaust ended 76 years ago, it is one of the most documented historical events ever, yet people still deny it. How will inviting deniers onto campus help this? Those who argue this have to explain how nearly a century of "sunlight" on fascism and Holocaust denial has yet to "disinfect" them, and it begs the question how many more people have to die in terrorist attacks and genocides until someone finally manages to comprehensively debate them out of existence.

Entrenching Inequality o n Campus

4. Our universities occupy central roles in the public sphere today, providing key forums through which public debate occurs. As such , it is vital that they ensure that the health of discussions is not undermined by those who spread hate and division.

5. At present, speech that causes division and harm is often defended on the basis that to remove it would undermine free speech. In reality, allowing the amplification of such speech only erodes the quality of public debate, and causes harm to the groups that such speech targets. This defence, in theory and in practice, minimises free speech overall. This legislation could force universities or students’ unions to host speakers from the far right which, if allowed to happen, would further supress the voices of those currently marginalised on campus such as women, Black people, disabled people and LGBT+ people.

6. This legislation seemingly underestimates the potential for social inequalities to be reflected in public debate, and disregards the nature and extent of these inequalities in the ‘marketplace of ideas’. As such, this legislation could prove paradoxical. The legislation aims to defend free speech but in practi c e could further propagate an unequal debate that further undermines the free speech of those who are already harmed by social inequalities. 

7. Free speech is a hugely important right that we must protect, but it is also a complex issue that demands nuance, not blanket legislation. The Government needs to remember that before it introduces legislation that could significantly benefit the far right.

Why On Campus?

8. One of the major issues with this legislation is that it appears to confuse the right to free speech with a supposed right to say it on campus. The former exists (within legal boundaries), whilst the latter does not at present. There is a vast range of things that are legal to say but one is curtailed from saying in certain places, not least when it comes to broadcast content.

9. Nonetheless, the two continue to be conflated by many who seek to force certain speech to be allowed on campus. Individuals have a legal right to deny the Holocaust or subsequent genocides or push pseudo-scientific race science, but why pass legislation that could force such speech to be allowed on university campuses? This does not increase the amount of speech, it merely risks unduly legitimising topics that objectively are not legitimate , or worse are actively harmful to some members of the student body.

Far Right and Free Speech

10. In the last five years, the issue of ‘free speech’ has become a primary concern for the British far right. One of the issues with this legislation is that it could open up campuses to the far right and allow them to exploit their platform to supress the ability of others on campus to be heard.

11. For many on the far right free speech is not a right, it is merely a tactic. With their ideas long marginalised from the mainstream, they are using the notion of free speech to try to broaden the ‘Overton Window’ (the range of ideas the public will accept) to the point where it includes their prejudiced and hateful politics. At the extreme fringes, they do not even hide this fact. When Richard Spencer and his alt-right supporters held their ‘Free Speech Rally’ on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. in June 2017, Nathan Damigo , then of white nationalist group Identity Evropa explicitly called free speech a "tool" to be used.

12. However, while few are taken in by those on the extreme end of the movement, many more give undue time to the claims of those on the more ‘moderate’ end of this spectrum. Take for example the high profile British far-right activist Milo Yiannopoulos, who organised the ‘Free Speech Week’ at University of Berkeley, California. In 2017 he called for the banning of Glasgow University’s Muslim Students Association. All too often, for far-right activists like Yiannopoulos free speech should be universal except for Muslims, a point he openly conceded at a talk in New Mexico:

"I try to think of myself as a free speech fundamentalist, I suppose the only real objection, and I haven’t really reconciled this myself, is when it comes to Islam. […] I struggle with how freely people should be allowed to preach that particular faith [Islam] in this country".

13. Paradoxically then, anti-Muslim activists such as Yiannopoulos feel it is legitimate to suppress the speech of those they believe are dangerous, while simultaneously dismissing out of hand those that oppose them for the same reasons as merely being anti-free speech.

14. Similarly, Britain’s most high profile far-right activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson) regularly talks about the curtailment of his speech while having a history of harassing those who say things he disagrees with. His ‘Troll Watch’ series for Rebel Media involved storming journalists’ offices and harassing people at home at night if they published something to which he objects. As he said in one video: "If you’re a journalist and you think your office or your home is a safe space. It’s not." With his long list of convictions and his violent history, these threats have understandably cowed some from speaking up in opposition to him.

15. Despite all the disingenuous and contrived declarations by the far right around free speech , there is something we can agree on: Free speech has to be defended and we have to fight for it. Whether there should be limits around free speech , and what those limits might be , is an important debate , but it is one that is being distorted and side-tracked by the far right, who are using it as a way into mainstream political debate in ways not previously possible.

16. We cannot allow them to highjack something as important as free speech, or allow them to strip away all nuance and complexity. Such behaviour risks binari s ing the debate to the point where the only two positions are agree ing that they can say whatever they want, wherever they want, and those who dissent become an enemy of free speech.

Questions Raised By This Legislation :

Will the following sorts of speakers be allowed on Campus?

· Holocaust and other genocide deniers

· Race pseudo-scientists and racist eugenicists

· Anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists

· Far-right extremists

· Islamist extremists

· Other religious extremists

· Misogynist extremists

Should the following people be allowed on a campus to speak to students?

· The Holocaust David Irving

· The former leader of the BNP, Nick Griffin

· The far-right activist Stephen Yaxley-Lennon

September 2021


Prepared 22nd September 2021