Letter in the Guardian: Antisemitism definition is undermining free speech

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  • Lawyers and retired judges argue that the IHRA working definition undermines freedom of expression, and Gavin Williamson is wrong to forcefully impose it on universities. Letter is online here.

The legally entrenched right to free expression is being undermined by an internally incoherent “non-legally binding working definition” of antisemitism. Its promotion by public bodies is leading to the curtailment of debate. Universities and others who reject the instruction of the secretary of state for education, Gavin Williamson, to adopt it should be supported in so doing.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights declares that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers”. The right is embodied in UK law by the Human Rights Act 1998, section 6 of which expressly prohibits a public authority from acting in a way that is incompatible with that right. Specific protections for freedom of expression at universities were also enacted in the Education Act 1986.

Mr Williamson was legally and morally wrong last October to instruct English universities to adopt and implement the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. He has threatened to punish them with loss of income if they fail to comply. This would be an improper interference with their autonomy.

The definition is often described as “the international definition of antisemitism”, but it has no legislative or other authority in international or domestic law. Noted scholars of antisemitism, including Prof David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London (2 December), have criticised its shortcomings.The IHRA added to the definition illustrative examples of statements that could be antisemitic “taking into account the overall context”. The majority of these examples do not refer to Jews as such, but to Israel. They have been widely used to suppress or avoid criticism of the state of Israel.

The impact on public discourse both inside and outside universities has already been significant. Mr Williamson’s threat should be withdrawn.

Prof Bill Bowring Barrister, Birkbeck, University of London,
Lord Hendy QC,
Sir Anthony Hooper Retired lord justice of appeal,
Michael Mansfield QC,
Sir Stephen Sedley Retired lord justice of appeal,
Hugh Tomlinson QC,
Frances Webber Barrister,
Sir Geoffrey Bindman QC Solicitor