A law professor said that a government letter about the safety of Jewish students because of the Israel-Hamas war raises concerns about whether Whitehall is trying to intervene to inhibit free speech in places such as King's College, Cambridge, pictured. (iStock.com/ruzanna)
And British universities have not been immune from the controversy.
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan wrote to universities on Oct. 11 to express "our deep concern for the welfare of Jewish students." In her letter, seen by Law360, she asked vice chancellors to "act swiftly and decisively" against "implicit or explicit" threats to Jewish students.
"We have seen evidence of a number of student societies that support Palestinians sending out inflammatory messages that show support for Hamas, which is, as you know, a proscribed terrorist organization," Keegan wrote.
Richard Moorhead, professor of law and professional ethics at the University of Exeter, said the letter "has raised some concern about whether the government is trying to intervene to inhibit free speech."
But some universities have got themselves into muddy waters by heeding the government's call.
Queen Mary University of London, which has one of the U.K 's top law schools and a large Muslim community, put out a statement a few days after Hamas militants launched attacks inside Israel. The original version is no longer available, but a local branch of the University and College Union criticized the institution for "affirming a narrative that entirely ignored the deaths in Gaza and the ongoing occupation of Palestine."
The trade union, which represents university employees, called on Queen Mary to "provide support and resources for Palestinian students and staff, and make a statement condemning the siege, illegal occupation and bombing of Gaza."
The UCU underlined its backing for the rights of students and staff to express their solidarity with Palestinians but said that "the freedom to do so is increasingly being curtailed by universities and the British government."
The twice-revised version of the university's statement now highlights "the horrifying impact on innocent civilians due to the events unfolding in the Middle East, including the terrorist attacks on Israel, the taking of civilian hostages, the military response by Israeli forces, the airstrikes and siege of Gaza and the resulting humanitarian crisis in Gaza."
An international student at the university's law school, who would speak only on condition of anonymity, told Law360 that the incident made Palestinian and other Middle East students "feel very, very upset.
"I don't think a public institution should give such a clear statement when evidently students from both sides are affected," the student said. "You need to be more neutral."
The university's earlier message prompted a protest on campus "so that everyone could feel free to speak up again," the student said. But the latest statement has not placated everyone: the UCU has pointed out that the "genocide in Gaza is relegated to a 'humanitarian crisis.'"
A member of staff at Queen Mary told Law360 — also on the condition of anonymity — that the current statement is still partial in the opinion of many staff and students. The student also said the school could not now be described as a "nice, neutral climate" for people to speak out.
"But I feel like, especially as a law student, you still have to speak up … because you are [meant to] to do the job to bring about justice and equality," the student said. "As a law student, you get to have much more information than the general public or someone who's not studying law, because you look into the court rulings, you look into what politicians say."
Meanwhile, the Union of Jewish Students said Oct. 20 that the group has seen "a year's worth" of antisemitic incidents on university campuses across the U.K. and Ireland since the start of the war. A "student welfare hotline" created at the start of the war had handled more than 150 calls from Jewish students about "concerns, anxieties, and reports of antisemitic incidents on their campuses," the group said.
The problem of freedom of speech in U.K. universities predates the latest war. A report published in September by the Policy Institute at King's College London pointed to statistics showing that 34% of undergraduate students thought free speech was under threat at their institutions in 2022 – up from 23% in 2019.
Almost half of the students questioned thought universities were becoming less tolerant of a wide range of viewpoints. Those who intended to vote Conservative were more likely to voice those concerns — 57% compared with 31% among Labour voters, according to the same report.
Meanwhile, a new law is designed to safeguard free speech in higher education, though it won't come into effect until the 2024-25 academic year. The legislation will establish a complaints scheme and create a director for freedom of speech and academic freedom to oversee the free speech function of the Office for Students, the independent regulator of higher education in England.
But, in the meantime, British universities are facing pressure from many sides to speak out.
According to a YouGov poll, 76% of Britons say there should be an immediate ceasefire. Tess Gill, a retired employment barrister and former fee-paid employment tribunal judge, expressed surprise that universities have not publicly called for one.
Even as the institutions themselves haven't joined the call, a number of academics have. More than 30 academics — a mix of current and former professors, lecturers and others in academia — signed on to be part of the more than 250 lawyers who called on the U.K. government to "fulfill its international legal obligations" to de-escalate the conflict between Israel and Hamas
But universities and law schools have not had to deal with financial pressure.
Donors to American universities are reportedly pulling millions of dollars of funding from some of the top universities over their stance on the latest war. And law firms including Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP have withdrawn job offers to students because of their links to statements blaming Israel for the Hamas attacks.
"So far as I know, nothing like that is happening here in the U.K.," Conor Gearty, a professor of human rights law at the London School of Economics Law School who signed the letter, said.
One reason is that high-profile donors have less sway in Britain. The country's universities get a larger proportion of public funding through tuition fees funded by government student loans, and grants for research and teaching. Other sources of income such as business partnerships, charitable donations and endowments account for around 19% of their total income, according to Universities UK, which represents institutions across the country.
"Law schools don't really have donors in the same way as U.S. ones. They are either non-existent or much smaller beer, so that's a much rarer issue," Moorhead of the University of Exeter said.
Moorhead added that his law faculty engages in the issues with seminars on campus and talks to explore the conflict between Israel, Palestine and Hamas. Professors are also listening to students and colleagues from the region, and comforting them.
"The issues have been as much pastoral as political," he said.
--Editing by Ed Harris.
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