Sir David Davis comments on strengthening the protection of free speech on campus


As published in The Daily Telegraph:

No-platforming and “cancel culture” is akin to “modern McCarthyism” with social media used to conduct “orchestrated attacks” on people’s reputation, the Commons has been warned.

The “terrible outbreak of intolerance” in contemporary society is reminiscent of America in the Forties and Fifties, when prominent figures were denounced as supporters of Communism, according to David Davis, the former Brexit Secretary.

He was speaking during the second reading of the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which is aimed at strengthening the protection of free speech on campus.

“The so-called culture wars remind me of nothing so much of McCarthyism in the US,” Mr Davis told the Commons.

“And this is like the early stages of totalitarian repression in other countries. The behaviour that we have seen in the online battles [includes] incredibly repressive verbal violence, the threats of actual physical violence alongside heavily orchestrated attacks on their reputations and work.”

‘Ordinary people terrified for fear of losing their jobs’

He said that such “frightening” personal attacks are taking place on people whose reputations are already well-established, adding: “So it is no wonder that ordinary people are terrified for fear of losing their jobs, their friends and their reputation. This is the chilling issue that we have been talking about here.”

He said that the Higher Education Bill will correct a “small but extraordinarily important aspect of this modern McCarthyism”.

Mr Davis, the MP for Haltemprice and Howden, cited examples of well-known figures who have been no-platformed, including Amber Rudd, the former Tory MP; Peter Tatchell, the gay rights activist; and Julie Bindel, the radical feminist.

“If you can terrorise, or suppress, or put down established people with high reputation, then how is it going to be for people without defences that they have?” he said.

‘No platform for Holocaust deniers’

During the debate, Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, rejected suggestions that Holocaust deniers will be allowed to speak at universities and elsewhere under new free speech legislation.

Labour is seeking to block the Higher Education Bill at second reading, arguing it could provide “legal protection and financial recompense” to those seeking to engage in “harmful and dangerous speech” on university campuses, such as Holocaust denial, racism and anti-vaccination messages.

Mr Williamson told the Commons: “It’s absolutely clear that this Bill will not, and never will, create a platform for Holocaust deniers.

“The 1986 Public Order Act, the 2010 Equality Act, introduced by Labour, as well as the Prevent duties in 2015 – this Bill, if made an Act, will not create the space to tolerate Holocaust deniers and never shall.”

Mr Williamson earlier told MPs: “Our universities must not become spaces where ideas are debated within a narrow consensus with those who challenge majority views subject to censorship themselves.”

He said some vice-chancellors have acted on government warnings to take action, but ministers “cannot sit by” given some vice-chancellors had not.