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Challenges to Free Speech: Repression of Palestine Advocacy in the UK

As reports emerge that approximately 100,000 people in Gaza are now either dead, injured or missing and presumed dead, concerns are intensifying over the erosion of civil liberties in the UK. The response by state authorities to legitimate activism in support of Palestine has sparked criticism, seen as emblematic of a broader trend towards curtailing protest rights and stifling freedom of expression. This reaction reflects ongoing systemic issues of Islamophobia, racism, and discrimination against Palestinians and those in solidarity with Palestine, permeating various sectors of society and government.

CAGE International Report

In December, CAGE International uncovered a troubling surge in cases across the UK targeting expressions of solidarity with Palestine. The report “Censoring Palestine” revealed a staggering 455% increase in cases of repression of pro-Palestine support, spanning various settings including schools, workplaces, protests, universities, and mosques since the previous upsurge in 2021. This notable rise underscores a widespread clampdown on pro-Palestinian activism.

The report details aggressive tactics employed to suppress Palestine solidarity, including the removal of Palestine symbols from schools and workplaces, disciplinary actions against students and parents, and misuse of anti-terrorism powers at protests. Key findings highlight a response marked by a troubling double standard evident in comparisons with responses to other conflicts. The disproportionately high number of cases involving Muslims specifically underscores the Islamophobic nature of censorship. Of particular concern are recent developments within the government-led counter-terrorism programme Prevent, which have resulted in a surge of cases involving harsh repression and censorship against schoolchildren and university students expressing support for Palestine.

Discrimination in academic institutions

To illustrate the report further, accusations have surfaced against senior leadership of St Andrews University for exacerbating racist attacks on Black rector, Stella Maris, after she spoke out against Israel's actions in Gaza and advocated for a ceasefire in November 2023. Following the university's announcement of an external investigation into her pro-Palestine statements, a supportive open letter was signed by 100 of her colleagues. They expressed their dismay with the university's response, emphasising the troubling nature of an all-white senior leadership team publicly condemning the only Black woman in the university's governance structures for taking an anti-war stance.

This week’s employment tribunal ruling, which found Bristol University's dismissal of Professor David Miller on the basis of his anti-Zionist beliefs to be a form of direct discrimination is thus a notable development. This ruling, contained within a comprehensive 108-page judgment delivered on Monday, represents a significant legal precedent and confirmed anti-Zionist views are a philosophical belief and thereby protected by the Equality Act 2010. The ruling emphasises that Professor Miller's opposition to Zionism does not entail opposition to the concept of Jewish self-determination or the establishment of a predominantly Jewish state. Instead, his criticism revolves around the exclusive realisation of self-determination for Jewish people in a land with a significant non-Jewish population, as well as the forced transfer, displacement, disenfranchisement, and other injustices faced by Palestinian people. It is the first time that anti-Zionist beliefs have been officially recognised and safeguarded in the workplace in the UK. The decision is anticipated to resonate with individuals encountering similar challenges in their workplace, particularly those speaking out against the actions of the state of Israel.

Protest rights

Directives from the Home Secretary have also raised alarms, with attempts to curtail activities deemed supportive of Palestine, including waving flags, sparking confusion and deterred participation in protests under threat of criminalisation. Whilst senior politicians have referred to pro-Palestine protests as “openly-criminal”, the actual arrest rates at these protests have been minimal and even lower than, for instance, at the Glastonbury music festival, undermining the validity of such assertions.

The government’s reaction to activism in solidarity with Palestine has ignited criticism, highlighting a larger pattern of diminishing protest liberties and constraining the freedom of speech. This serves as an important reminder that protest is a fundamental human right crucial for enacting positive change. This right is threatened when public authorities dictate rather than protect the right to free expression and protest. It is imperative to collectively advocate for the preservation of these essential freedoms.

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