Speaking on BBC Radio 4, universities minister Michelle Donelan promoted the bill - which will enable speakers who are no-platformed to sue universities for compensation on free speech grounds - and said it would defend any “lawful free speech”.
Asked to respond to a hypothetical scenario in which Holocaust denying historian David Irving sought redress for being no-platformed, Donelan said on Wednesday: “What this bill is designed to do is ensure that we protect and we promote free speech that is lawful, so any free speech...”
When asked to confirm if Holocaust denial is legal, she added “yes” and said: “Obviously it would depend on exactly what they were saying, whether they were straying into racism, whether they were straying into hate crimes but a lot of these things that we would be standing for would be hugely offensive, would be hugely hurtful.
“There is a difference between condoning and supporting something as opposed to standing up for free speech.”
Donelan’s comments sparked a massive backlash:
Campaign group HOPE not Hate were quick to launch a petition to tell the government not to protect Holocaust deniers. It has, so far, gained 1,804 signatures.
Meanwhile, Jonathan Portes, professor of economics at King’s College London said:
Speaking in the House of Commons, Labour MP Charlotte Nichols raised a point of order about the issue and called for Donelan to apologise for her words.
She said: “There are few more serious crimes in history than the Nazi Holocaust, the murder of six million Jews as well as hundreds of thousands of Roma and Sinti, disabled and LGBT people, political opponents and other minority groups. And to hear a minister say that the government plans to change the law to take the side of those who would deny this genocide is truly appalling.
“As a proudly Jewish parliamentarian, my blood ran cold listening to the interview. There is no merit to any assertion that either academic rigour or the university experience is improved by exposure to such ideology.
“Holocaust denial cannot and should not be protected speech under the law.”
Responding to the backlash, a spokesperson for Boris Johnson backtracked and said: “Holocaust denial is not something the government would ever accept”.
And after shadow education secretary Kate Green spoke out against Donelan’s words, Gavin Williamson defended his minister. He said: “The universities minister never said that this would protect Holocaust deniers, and it wouldn’t protect Holocaust deniers because this party does not stand for anti-Semitism – unlike the party opposite.
“This party recognises that we need to eradicate anti-Semitism and racism of all its kinds and this legislation will never, never, never protect Holocaust deniers, because that is something that should never and will never be tolerated.
“Let us be absolutely clear that this legislation will never protect Holocaust deniers. It protects free speech within the law.
“We know that anti-Semitic activity and anti-Semitism are not to be tolerated. It is clear in the Equality Act passed in 2010 and we will never tolerate that, and this legislation will not allow Holocaust deniers to be able to spread their hate and misinformation on our campuses.”
And for her part, Donelan appeared to contradict herself and said:
We hope for urgent clarity on their position.