By Nick Clark
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2590

Exclusive—how ‘free speech’ minister Jo Johnson stifled Palestine debate

This article is over 6 years, 2 months old
The Tories love to cast themselves as brave defenders of free speech on college campuses, but Nick Clark uncovers documents that prove a minister’s orders led university bosses in the north west of England to ban a Palestine debate last year
Issue 2590
The trail leads all the way to universities minister Jo Johnson
The trail leads all the way to universities minister Jo Johnson

A university’s ban on students organising solidarity with Palestine was directly linked to instructions from a top Tory minister, Socialist Worker can reveal.

The University of Central Lancashire (Uclan) made headlines last February after refusing to allow its own students to host a pro-Palestine discussion on campus. It’s not the only university where Palestine events have been targeted—and underlines the Tories’ hypocrisy over defending free speech on campus.

Now a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by Socialist Worker has uncovered a trail of emails revealing how Uclan senior bosses connived to have the discussion cancelled.

That trail leads all the way to then universities minister Jo Johnson—a man who likes to paint himself as the champion of “free speech” on campuses.

Johnson wrote to Nicola Dandridge—who at the time was chief executive of the umbrella group Universities UK—on 13 February asking her to “disseminate” his instructions.

Though Johnson’s words were carefully chosen, those instructions carried a deliberate underlying message. Universities must crack down on pro-Palestinian events or risk being accused of tolerating antisemitism.

In his letter Johnson explained that the government had recently adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The definition has been widely criticised for restricting legitimate criticisms against the state of Israel (see below).

Johnson pointed to “rising reports of antisemitic incidents in this country” and singled out events that “take place under the banner of Israel Apartheid”.


He added, “Such events need to be properly handled by higher education institutions to ensure that our values, expectations and laws are not violated.”

The following day Dandridge sent Johnson’s letter to university vice chancellors along with a lengthy message of her own. Under the subject line “Antisemitism on campus” Dandridge singled out “speaker events and protests” as a “particular area of difficulty”.

“One issue that we did want to flag up with you, particularly in the run up to Israeli Apartheid Week,” wrote Dandridge, “is whether it would be useful for you to consider, if relevant, what action plan your institution has in place”.

The message worked. Just two days after Johnson sent his letter senior Uclan employees began targeting a panel discussion hosted by the student union’s Friends of Palestine society.

The FOI marked the letters as the first two documents of several that “outline the decision-making process” which led to the discussion being cancelled. Those same documents show Uclan’s vice chancellor Michael Thomas passed Johnson’s message on to senior managers on 15 February—the day after Dandridge had circulated it.

Two hours later Uclan’s Social and Community Inclusion Manager Linda Tompkins emailed the student union.

She warned that “some concerns” had been raised about an event hosted by the Friends of Palestine society “and the potential for antisemitism”.

Her email was the start of a concerted effort by Uclan bosses to force restrictions on the Friends of Palestine event.

It ended in a decision by senior executives to ban the discussion from taking place on campus entirely. It began with a signal from the top of the Tory government.

A definition designed to defame

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) says antisemitism can include “targeting the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.” It also mentions “claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour”.

Defenders of Israel say this doesn’t restrict “legitimate” criticism of Israel. But documents released to Socialist Worker reveal how authorities at Uclan used the definition to do just that.

In a press statement at the time Uclan claimed the Friends of Palestine event “contravenes” the IHRA definition, but refused to explain how.

Now the university has been forced to admit to Socialist Worker that it has no records showing what part of the definition was supposed to have been broken—or how.

Yet Uclan did hand over the minutes of the senior executive meeting that banned the discussion from campus.

These confess that the executive didn’t even bother to find out whether the topic or speakers were antisemitic.

Instead their problem was with the name Israeli Apartheid, which was “problematic with regards to the IHRA definition”.

Chief operating officer Michael Ahern’s letter to the student union went one step further. It said that Uclan had “absolutely no concern” with events that highlight the suffering of Palestinians.

But, “By linking the event to ‘Israeliapartheidweek2017’ the context moves away from pro-Palestinian to anti-Israeli. On this basis it is concluded that the event cannot proceed.”


In other words it’s fine to sympathise with Palestinian suffering. But talking about the cause of that suffering—Israel’s racism towards Palestinians and its occupation of Palestinian land—is not allowed.

Despite Ahern’s claim to have “no concern” about support for Palestinians, Uclan management treated the society and its event with suspicion and hostility from the outset.

Demanding BDS at Soas, London in 2017

Demanding BDS at Soas, London in 2017 (Pic: Guy Smallman)

In the exchange of emails that followed Johnson’s letter, several senior employees at Uclan demanded that students’ union officials treat the discussion as a “designated event”.

This means an event where speakers might say something “contrary to the law,” commit an “unlawful act”, or where “a breach of the peace is likely to occur”.

No one from the university fully explained why they thought the Friends of Palestine society’s event met that description. The university hadn’t responded to a request for clarification as Socialist Worker went to press.

Bosses even acknowledged that similar events had taken place before without any trouble. But they threatened to use this description to force restrictions and “mitigations” on the event.

This even meant placing a pro-Israeli “right of reply” speaker on the platform.

Ahern’s letter also suggested that the university would only tolerate “balanced discussion” on Palestine in the future. In other words, events organised by the Friends of Palestine society should include pro-Israel speakers.

Far from protecting free speech—as they repeatedly claimed to do—university bosses effectively blocked students’ right to organise and campaign against Israel.

They used the IHRA definition to help them do it.

Free speech, but only for right

Jo Johnson has blown a lot of hot air claiming to defend “free speech” at universities. Late last year he announced a plan to launch a new Office for Students.

Its much-trumpeted aim is to fine universities and students’ unions for not defending freedom of speech.

What Johnson meant was an assault on students who protest against racist, sexist or bigoted speakers. In a speech last year he said speakers had been “banned or harried under no-platforming or safe spaces decisions.”

He added, “Universities should be places that open minds, not close them, where ideas can be freely challenged.

“Young people should have the resilience and confidence to challenge controversial opinions and take part in open, frank and rigorous discussions”.

Clearly none of this applies to the right of students to speak out against Israel—or the right of Muslim students not to be monitored under the government’s Prevent programme.

Johnson only cares about free speech for racists and the right. His plans to defend them mean attacking the right to organise against them.

Sign or be banned

Uclan isn’t the only university where Palestine solidarity campaigners have been targeted.

Students organising Israeli Apartheid Week events at a number of universities were suddenly faced with restrictions and red tape after Johnson wrote to vice chancellors.

At Liverpool Hope University, a speaker was asked to sign up to the IHRA definition of antisemitism ahead of the event.

Management at Exeter and UCL universities intervened to stop activities and stunts organised by Palestine societies.

More recently bosses at Cambridge and LSE universities intervened to impose “neutral” chairs on panel discussions on BDS.

Socialist Workers’ revelations about what happened at Uclan come in the run-up to Israeli Apartheid Weeks due to be held on campuses from later this month.

Students and university workers must be ready to challenge attempts to shut them down.

Waging campus war

Uclan’s pro vice chancellor Joel Arber warned fellow Uclan bosses about the “negative external attention” the Friends of Palestine event had received.

He was almost certainly referring to a campaign by various “Friends of Israel” groups to have the event called off.

Socialist Worker’s Freedom of Information request showed Uclan received 364 complaints in opposition to Israeli Apartheid week.

At least four of those complaints came from organisations including North West Friends of Israel, Sussex Friends of Israel and pro?Israeli Stand With Us and Stand With Us UK. Another 129 came from people linking themselves to those groups.

It was a textbook example of how pro-Israel groups campaign to silence solidarity campaigners.

Israel relies on such groups to wage its war against the Palestine Solidarity movement in Britain. Israel’s strategic affairs minister Gilad Erdan told the Israeli Knesset that the campaign against BDS is a “battlefront like any other”.

The REAL threat…

Antisemitism is a real threat—and it comes from the right.

Fascist and hard right parties, which promote antisemitism, have grown in Europe.

They include Fidesz and Jobbik in Hungary. The right wing government marked Holocaust Memorial Day last week by holding a mass to Admiral Horthy, the dictator who collaborated with the Nazis.

Yet right wingers focus on smearing those who criticise Israel or its Zionist ideology as “antisemitic”.

They target Israeli Apartheid Week, which many student activists hold to highlight Israel’s racism towards Palestinians.

Israel is built on the oppression of Palestinians.

Its founding involved the mass expulsion of Palestinians—and it has continually grabbed more land from them through wars.

Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance