Will Labour repeal the Free Speech Act?

Labour’s opposition to the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill was always pretty muted - as it weaved its way through both houses, it sounded like the shadow front bench was keen to not be seen to be on the side of woke cancel culture.

As such, it was clear that anything stronger on the way that the party would approach the legislation would be conditional on it becoming clear that attempts to tackle antisemitism were being stymied by the implementation of the Act.

So when shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson was interviewed in Jewish News on Friday, her comments on antisemitism were highly notable.

Phillipson has evidently been meeting Union of Jewish Students (UJS) leaders to discuss concerns that the new duties on universities, colleges and students’ unions to promote free speech are actually contributing to an increase in antisemitism. So as well as criticising the Online Safety Bill and promoting “critical thinking skills” amongst young people, she took aim at the Free Speech Act:

I’ve met with UJS, as has Matt Western, Labour’s shadow university minister who keeps in regular contact. I’m really concerned. We can really see the impact that rising levels of antisemitism is having on students. All young people, including Jewish students should feel safe and supported.

And at the moment I’m really worried that isn’t the case, right across the country. Sadly, the legislation brought in through the Freedom of Speech Bill has opened up, has allowed that to flourish. And it has made it more difficult for universities to tackle that kind of hate speech on campus.

Phillipson isn’t daft enough to promise repeal, presumably for fear that the party will be seen as being soft on social justice warriors. But pretty much all new governments come in and sweep away legislation from the previous administration they don’t like – and Phillipson’s comments reflect concerns expressed in the Lords from the government’s independent adviser on antisemitism, Lord Mann:

On the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, I raised some questions about whether there could be unintended consequences by shifting more extreme protests from the public realm to the university realm, using the rationale that there is absolute freedom of speech in the university realm.

I am sad to report to the House that my questions and warnings have proved true. I speak to universities every week and to the Union of Jewish Students most days, and that is precisely what is happening in our country now: extremists are moving their protests off the public realm to the university realm, nearer Jewish students, using the excuse and rationale that free speech goes in any way in universities. That will need to be considered, because it is an unintended consequence of that legislation—which I supported, by the way.

None of this is to suggest that the Act would be easy to repeal without a package of other measures, which would almost certainly need to focus more on “good campus relations” than finger wagging threats on both ends of the campus culture see-saw. Nor would Labour be able to ignore the David Miller employment tribunal ruling that anti-Zionism is a protected belief under the Equality Act, and nor would it be wise (or, probably, legally possible) to simply state that phrases like “intifada” or “from the river to sea” are automatically antisemitic or unlawful regardless of context.

It’s a tricky line to tread for Western and Phillipson – but if it’s the case that the looming legislation fans the flames of conflict on campus, and causes universities and students’ unions to always (or at least disproportionately) err on the side of free speech rather than harassment and extremism, it sounds like a repeal in exchange for some grown-up thinking from universities and their SUs may well be on the cards.

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