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Universities: Freedom of Expression

Question for Department for Education

UIN HL13580, tabled on 23 February 2021

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether their proposals to champion freedom of speech in universities extends to (1) hate speech, and (2) antisemitic speech, as defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Association.

Answered on

5 March 2021

My right hon. Friend, the Sectary of State for Education, announced new measures to strengthen free speech and academic freedom at universities in England on 16 February 2021, in order to stamp out unlawful silencing on campuses. The new measures set out in the policy paper will help to ensure that our universities are places where free speech can thrive. The policy paper can be found here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/higher-education-free-speech-and-academic-freedom.

However, the right to free speech does not include the right to harass others, or to incite violence or terrorism. The government has always been very clear that there is no place in our society, including in higher education, for hatred or any form of harassment, unlawful discrimination or racism, including antisemitism. Universities have clear responsibilities in this regard: they and other higher education providers should be at the forefront of tackling hatred.

In October 2020, the Secretary of State wrote to all higher education providers in England urging adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. It is estimated that at least 31 additional institutions have adopted the definition since this letter, with more indicating their intention to adopt. We have been clear that adopting the IHRA definition sends a clear and important signal to students and staff that antisemitism is taken seriously and it will not be tolerated. The IHRA ​definition allows providers better to understand and recognise incidents of antisemitism, which helps them​ to address hatred or unlawful discrimination in higher education settings. We will continue to call on providers to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

The government does not see a conflict between protecting freedom of speech and adopting the IHRA definition. Indeed, our strengthened protections for free speech are likely to support Jewish students who on a number of occasions have had their freedom of speech curtailed by others. Universities have clear legal responsibilities regarding discrimination and harassment, and must balance these with their legal duties to protect free speech.

We will continue to work across government to ensure that racism and religious hatred of any kind is not tolerated anywhere, including in our world-leading universities.