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End freedom of 'hate speech'

Baroness Deech calls for 'freedom of speech' to no longer be abused as a defence for hate and racism in universities.

In late 2010 at the LSE, Abdel Bari Atwan, editor-in chief of the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper, referred to the “Jewish Lobby” a number of times, and accused the Jewish students in the audience of “bombing Gaza”. They walked out in protest. Last month former US marine Ken O’Keefe, speaking at Middlesex University, said that Israel “should be destroyed”, before comparing Jews to the Nazis.

This is unfettered hate speech on our UK campuses. Then there are the individual incidents, such as the Nazi-themed antics on an LSE ski trip which included a Jewish student. Forty-two per cent of Jewish students have witnessed an anti-Semitic incident on their campus in the last year. It does not seem as if universities are tackling these incidents as they would if other minorities were targeted in the same way.

Whilst in each of these cases, the universities are now reviewing procedures and looking to guard against future incidents, it is fair to say that their initial responses fell short of what outspoken and avowedly anti-racist institutions would aspire to. For each incident, it has taken the intervention of Jewish or other minority students explaining the problem and driving the reaction.

The Education (No 2) Act 1986 says that higher education Institutions must ‘take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for its members, students and employees and for visiting speakers’. ‘Freedom of speech’ seems to have become the catch-all response for universities faced with examples of hate speech such as those I have cited. What they have not grasped is that it is freedom of speech within the law that is to be protected, and hate or racist speech is outside the law. Many university administrators seem to be ignorant of the law or have not updated their Codes on visiting speakers for decades.

They need to consider the relevant legislation: the Equality Act, the Protection from Harassment Act, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act are among the many recent laws that limit freedom of speech and exclude the stirring-up of race hatred and violent hate speech. Universities have a special duty to promote race harmony between various groups on campus, which they are tending to ignore. Meetings and known hate speakers can be risk-assessed, banned or stopped in their course if the law is being broken and there is disruption on campus.

Historically, the students’ unions were considered to be outside the equality laws, although they present themselves as defenders of human rights in general. The anomaly by which they were not included in the definition of public institutions has been addressed through their potential loss of exempt charity status and the need for universities to monitor how they conduct themselves and spend their money. The national student union, the NUS has now produced clear guidance on how to handle hate speech on campus, responsibilities under the law and details of best practice. The Commons home affairs select committee recently proposed that government set up a central contact point to assist in the assessment of hate speakers.

My question aims to elicit confirmation of legal responsibilities and to set the record straight so that ‘freedom of speech’, a central tenet of our society, is respected and not abused as a stock defence against action on racism.

Baroness Deech raised to life peerage in 2005, and has been the Gresham Professor of Law since 2008.