British Universities Are Repressing Free Speech on Palestine

In the last three months, several hundred people in Britain have been investigated or threatened with dismissal at work for expressing pro-Palestinian views. This is the biggest attack on free speech for decades, and universities are its main battleground.

Students and pro-Palestinian supporters gather outside King's College to take part in a pro-Palestine protest in London, United Kingdom, on July 9, 2021. (Wiktor Szymanowicz / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In late October, a lecturer at a UK university was told he would be investigated by his employer for misconduct after students complained about one of his social media posts. Christopher (not his real name) was criticized for sharing a statement by education workers in Palestine asking for support in the face of Israeli air strikes.

Among other points, the statement noted how arguments in support of military action by Israel had been taken up by news media around the world. According to the complainants, this observation was tainted by antisemitic tropes. By sharing the statement, they argued, Christopher had made the university unsafe for Jewish students.

When Christopher realized he was being investigated, he says,

I was consumed by stress. It’s hard for me to talk about it without being able to feel it is still there. The main thing was the isolation, and having to walk into the classroom when I had this fear hanging over my head that it could be the end of my teaching career. I was told I couldn’t talk to anyone about it except my union rep. It was totally crushing. I couldn’t get to sleep. When I did sleep, I would wake up thinking about it. I was always thinking about my livelihood — I’ve only just got a mortgage.

His employer invited Christopher to a disciplinary meeting, and he was informed that one outcome of the investigation could be dismissal:

It felt increasingly confusing, as if there was quite a lot of procedure I had to get my head around. I had never been investigated before. I didn’t feel confident that the employer was really properly following its own procedures: I needed to be the monitor of the process when I was under investigation. I was envisioning a situation where I would lose my job, lose my flat, and have to go and retrain in another field of work. I feared that my life in UK higher education was over.

After a two-month investigation, in December, Christopher was told that the complaint had been dismissed. However, this relatively positive ending is far from usual.

Three months have passed since Israel began its attack on Gaza. In that time, hundreds of people have been subjected to investigation by their employer. Most of the investigations remain incomplete. Employers are dragging the process out, and their employees are suffering uncertainty and distress.

A Multipronged Assault

How many other people have faced complaints since October 7? By Christmas, the pro-Palestinian network European Legal Support Center (ELSC) had received over one hundred requests for support for people facing the threat of punishments — including criminal punishments, threats to their education, or the loss of their right to work in the UK — for speech about Palestine. Some eighty-eight cases involved employees facing disciplinary investigation or threats of dismissal.

In three months, the ELSC has received as many complaints as it had over the previous five years. In a separate report published in December, CAGE International, which advocates on behalf of communities affected by the “war on terror,” reported that between October 9 and December 14, in excess of two hundred people had approached CAGE seeking advice after attempts to limit their pro-Palestinian speech. Of those cases, forty-eight had involved employees.

Our stories of how censorship works tend to assume a single source of power — the bureaucracy of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, George Orwell’s Big Brother. But the sources of this attack on free speech are multiple: Conservative politicians, journalists on national newspapers, or managers trying to think themselves into the mindset of the state and guess what the war demands of them.

One particularly destructive innovation has been the use of Section 12 of the 2000 Terrorism Act. The whole purpose of the Act is to stop people joining, funding, or promoting terrorist groups. The law’s focus is not on ideas or causes but on organizations — which is reflected in the list of proscribed terrorist groups, to which Hamas was added in November 2021.

Some employers have taken the criminal law’s prohibition on activities supporting Hamas as if the law was much more draconian than it in fact is and have prohibited nearly all expressions of support for Palestine. The problem isn’t the law as such, but the willingness of managers, HR departments, and other petty autocrats to imagine that it goes much further than it does.

Under the Magnifying Glass

How many people in total are being investigated? CAGE and ELSC are just two of many campaigns taking an interest in free speech over Palestine. Members of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) tell me they, too, have received a record number of requests for assistance. The campaign will not share the details of its cases but says it has received “dozens.”

Majid Iqbal of the Islamophobia Response Unit reports that since October 7, his organization has received twenty-eight workplace discrimination complaints and over a hundred referrals altogether — about as many as his campaign received in the whole of 2022. I’m a lawyer myself and have advised around thirty people since October 7, the majority of whom have been members of trade unions or professional associations.

Fitting all these sources of information together, my best estimate is that in addition to the 136 people who have approached CAGE or ELSC for employment advice, about the same number of people have also been threatened with investigation or sanction but have found alternative sources of advice (a campaign, a union, high street solicitors, etc). Across Britain as a whole, in other words, somewhere between 250 and 300 employees have been investigated or threatened with dismissal for pro-Palestinian speech.

According to Miriyam Aouragh, vice chair of the Black Members’ Standing Committee of the lecturers’ University and College Union (UCU): “Overwhelmingly the people who are being singled out are our racialized colleagues; some are Muslim, some are Arab, some are black people with an anti-colonial stance.”

A study of allegations of antisemitism made against university staff between January 2017 and May 2022 found that in thirty-eight of the forty cases, the allegations of antisemitism were dismissed (the other two remained under investigation when the report was concluded). In many of those cases, the staff subject to complaint were indeed black or Arab or Muslim.

The culture of higher education is changing, Aouragh warns, under the impact of the purge:

This is an ugly, competitive sector. The people who work on Palestine, who’ve been speaking out, we know there is a magnifying glass on us. We know we will not be selected for grants. We know we will not be selected for permanent roles.

Taking Sides

Employers are not disciplining both sides. I have not been able to find a single press report of any employee anywhere in Britain being threatened since October 7 for pro-Israeli speech.

This shouldn’t be surprising. In war, employers always tend to treat as suspicious forms of speech that are hostile to our government’s ambitions, and always tend to overlook speech that contradicts government policy. What matters is the side people take — it is that which causes them to be treated as extremist — not whether their language is violent or peaceful.

But this, of course, creates problems for the employer when they have to defend disciplinary sanctions. Quite a few of the employers that are now treating pro-Palestinian speech as unacceptable have previously encouraged staff to declare their solidarity for other victims of overseas wars. Our equality laws make it unlawful to discriminate against people on grounds of their beliefs. A workplace that was once festooned in Ukrainian flags cannot two years later sack the employee who comes to work dressed in a keffiyeh.

No one is speaking up for the people whose free speech is being challenged — certainly not the Labour MPs who have been instructed not to march for peace and to join demonstrations only if they are in solidarity with Israel’s war. There is no positive role being played by the various millionaire-funded “free speech” campaigns, which have grown up in recent years as part of the Trumpian shift in Anglo-US politics. They, too, have other stories that they prefer to publicize, rather than the worst attack on speech rights in decades.

Even Britain’s liberal, free speech charities are looking away. Ruth Smeeth, the Labour peer who is head of Index on Censorship, traveled two weeks ago on a “solidarity mission” to Israel where she expressed her support for the politicians detonating universities in Gaza.

Since October 2023, Arif Ahmed has been the director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom of the Office for Students or, in popular parlance, the government-appointed “Free Speech Tsar.” The sole purpose of Ahmed’s job is to protect freedom of expression in universities. He appears to have given no public speech since October 9, nor issued any press release or other statement reminding universities of their need to protect lecturers discussing the ethics of the war.

For many years, the Conservative press has warned that universities were doing too little to protect free speech. The papers printed lurid fantasies warning that higher education was dominated by a cadre of left-wing lecturers who were trying to “cancel” their critics. The government introduced special legislation to mandate universities to prioritize freedom of expression.

Critics warned that while the legislation seemed to protect free speech at universities, in reality, it would be used to spread conservative opinions and discipline left-wingers. Those dynamics have happened just as we feared, with the Conservative press having gone from demanding unlimited free speech in 2021–22, to now arguing that speech cannot be free and that pro-Palestinian people should be prosecuted or driven from their posts.

A Scandal that Shames Us All

Of the several hundred employees facing dismissal, around half are working in education (mainly higher education). Other cases involve solicitors, journalists, workers in tech companies, and sports administrators. Some of the people affected by the present free speech crisis are Jewish employees of Jewish organizations, who have been threatened for anodyne comments suggesting that Palestinians have as much right to statehood as Israelis.

The only way to understand quite how bad the war on free speech has been in recent weeks is by comparing it to other significant infringements on speech rights in British history. The worst attack on freedom of expression under Margaret Thatcher’s populist conservatism was the dismissal of staff from the intelligence service Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in 1989.

That campaign saw the government threatening 130 GCHQ workers who signed letters promising to maintain their union membership, although this number then shrank as the campaign wore on. In the end, no more than fourteen trade unionists were dismissed. In terms of the number of people affected, even at its worst, it was a smaller scandal than the attack taking place today.

Britain never had a domestic equivalent of the US House Un-American Activities Committee. Even at the time of the 1960s free speech trials, there was never an attempt to purge people from workplaces on anything like the same scale we are seeing today.

The last time there was a worse infringement on free speech rights came as long ago as 1948, when around 150 left-wing civil servants were dismissed by Clement Attlee’s Labour government, in a purge that accompanied the start of the Cold War. Few voices were raised in their support, as most liberals and democratic socialists were so scared of the Communist threat that they kept silent when the principle of free speech was ignored.

Too often in the past, that is what has happened when it comes to free speech. Everyone only raises their voice against an injustice long after the victims have lost their jobs.

When Christopher looks back at his treatment, what angers him is the isolation he had to endure. “I couldn’t consult colleagues about my situation. Friends would ask me how’s work and I couldn’t answer them.” Part of that isolation was political:

Because of the nature of the complaint and the issue, I knew that everyone else was too scared to talk about it as well. I suspected I wasn’t the only person affected but there was no discussion about it, no community, no help from anywhere outside. I knew that lots of groups who had spoken out — they were under scrutiny too. I felt the isolation personally, but it wasn’t just about me.

It is not too late for defenders of free speech to rouse themselves and say that this attack on freedom of expression is a scandal that shames us all.