Press release: “Boris Johnson’s ‘free speech legislation’ is nothing but a fraud”

Press release May 12 2021
“Boris Johnson’s ‘free speech legislation’ is nothing but a fraud”

Amidst Israel’s brutal campaign against Palestinians, Labour Campaign for Free Speech condemns the government as it continues to “chill free speech” by threatening universities with defunding if they don’t adopt IHRA.  

The government’s proposed free speech legislation has been “roundly condemned as a thinly-disguised fraud” by the Labour Campaign For Free Speech, which was set up in February 2021 at a conference with over 300 participants. The legislation will allow ‘gagged’ speakers to claim compensation if they have been no-platformed by a student union or a university. 

“This legislation is clearly an attack on the left. While we argue in favour of open debate and against no-platforming of speakers, which has affected me personally in the past, this law has to be seen firmly in context of the reality of continuing attacks by this government on free speech when it comes to issues of Israel and Palestine. Free Speech is vital for democracy, but it must be even-handed and not a one-sided free speech only when suits a government’s agenda”, warns Jackie Walker, a member of the campaign’s steering committee

Tina Werkmann, also a member of the campaign’s steering committee, said that, “Education secretary Gavin Williamson claims the legislation will counter the ‘chilling effect of censorship on campus’ – all the while he is continuing to threaten universities with defunding if they don’t accept the highly disputed so-called ‘working definition of antisemitism’ published by the International Holocaus Remembrance Alliance. The government is clearly attacking academic freedom and free speech, not defending it.”

The IHRA has been rejected by numerous legal practitioners and academic scholars, because it conflates anti-Zionism and antisemitism. Among the many critics of the IHRA are its principal author Kenneth Stern who explained that: “The definition was not drafted, and was never intended, as a tool to target or chill speech on a college campus. In fact, at a conference in 2010 about the impact of the definition, I highlighted this misuse, and the damage it could do.”

“This is particularly disgusting in the context of the current brutal attacks of the Israeli government, which is attempting to ethnically cleanse Palestinian families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah in occupied Jerusalem”, Tina Werkmann said. 

Following justified protests from Palestinians, the Israeli government has responded with increasing brutality, including an assault on worshippers at Al Aqsa Mosque that has wounded hundreds. Israel has now started bombarding the population of besieged Gaza, many refugees from Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948. Hundreds of Palestinian civilians have already been killed, including children. 

“Rather than hold the Israeli government accountable for its crimes, the Tory government continues to seek to punish all those who dare to speak out in solidarity with the Palestinians. Trying to enforce IHRA on campus is part and parcel of a campaign to attack academic freedom and free speech particularly on the issue of Israel and Palestine”, said Tony Greenstein, another member of the campaign’s steering committee. 

— Ends —

For editors:

Some of the legal practitioners and academic scholars critical of IHRA are:

  • Professor David Feldman (vice-chair of the Chakrabarti Inquiry and director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Anti-Semitism) who has described the definition as “bewilderingly imprecise”.
  • Sir Stephen Sedley, the Jewish former Court of Appeal judge, who has written thatthe IHRA “fails the first test of any definition: it is indefinite”.
  • Hugh Tomlinson QC who has warned that the IHRA definition had a “chilling effect on public bodies”.
  • Geoffrey Robertson QC who has explained that, “The definition does not cover the most insidious forms of hostility to Jewish people and the looseness of the definition is liable to chill legitimate criticisms of the state of Israel and coverage of human rights abuses against Palestinians.” Robertson, a prominent human rights barrister, also wrote that the definition was ‘not fit for purpose’.
  • Tony Lerman, the founder of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, wrote that “it’s not fit for purpose, but it also has the effect of making Jews more vulnerable to antisemitism, not less, and exacerbating the bitter arguments Jews have been having over the nature of contemporary antisemitism for the last 20 to 25 years.”

The Labour Campaign for Free Speech was set up on February 13 2021 at a conference with over over 300 people, which also agreed the organisation’s campaigning priorities:

  • Defend the right to free speech and publication. 
  • Reject the IHRA so-called definition of antisemitism, whose sole use has been to chill free speech on Israel/Palestine. 
  • End the antisemitism smear campaign conducted against Jeremy Corbyn and the left, which has spread into wider society.
  • Oppose the threat of defunding of universities if they do not adopt IHRA and the targeting of academics who speak out on Israel/Palestine.
  • Stop the labelling of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Campaign (BDS) as ‘antisemitic’.
  • Oppose the interference of the state in the running of political parties.
  • End the Prevent programme.
  • Stop the prosecution of whistleblowers and journalists.

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