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Free speech Bill ‘opens door to vexatious cases’

GOVERNMENT plans to “safeguard” free speech in universities would give free rein to Holocaust deniers, anti-vaccination groups and conspiracy theorists, Labour warned yesterday.

The party has confirmed its MPs will vote against the Tories’ “hugely divisive and harmful” Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill when it has its second reading in the Commons this week.

The National Union of Students also criticised the legislation — dubbed the “hate speech Bill” by Labour — as wildly disproportionate, pointing out it will leave institutions vulnerable to costly legal action from people making vexatious claims about censorship. 

And a briefing paper on the legislation for Universities UK, which represents 140 higher education authorities, said there is “significant concern over what the unintended consequences” of the law could be. 

Courts could become filled with “minor disputes, while incurring significant cost, time and reputational damage to universities, and ultimately detracting from their efforts to champion freedom of speech,” it said. 

The Bill would also give university staff a new right to take legal action against universities if they believe they have been denied promotions because of their personal opinions.

Shadow education secretary Kate Green said ministers were wasting time helping people whose only aim was to cause division and spread hate.

“It is shocking that the Conservatives are introducing a new law to give Holocaust deniers, anti-vaxxers and people harmful to public interest the opportunity to sue their way to a platform at universities,” she warned. 

A government spokesperson said the Bill would “allow the Office for Students to monitor and enforce freedom of speech measures at higher education institutions [and] introduce a complaints system and redress for breaches of free speech duties.”

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