Hope not Hate, the campaign group that led the survey, has warned that proposed freedom of speech laws could allow Holocaust deniers and far-right extremists to claim compensation if they are not allowed to speak on campuses.
Nearly 30 per cent said they were against plans to let speakers, academics or students sue over instances of “no-platforming” due to political views, according to the survey of 1,500 people across the UK.
This figure rose to 48 per cent if this included racists, extremists, Islamophobes and Holocaust deniers.
Of more than 500 respondents who said they voted Conservative, 46 per cent said they would not back the government’s proposals if this group was allowed to seek compensation when blocked from speaking at universities.
Hope not Hate has urged the government to amend proposed legislation to ensure “harmful, hateful liars” are not protected by new freedom of speech protections covering universities.
The government has denied the new laws would introduce new rights for individuals who “seek to harass others or spread extremist views”.
Earlier this year, the universities minister sparked outrage after suggesting the new free speech proposals would allow Holocaust deniers to speak on campus.
Gavin Williamson later said Holocaust deniers would not be protected by the new laws.
The education secretary has been a vocal supporter of free speech on campus, amid campaigns and conversations over decolonising curriculums, removing controverisal statues and no-platforming speakers over views.
Last week, he accused some UK universities of pursuing a “divisive agenda” through actions such as “cancelling national heroes” and “debating statues”.
Mr Williamson has also previously said he was “deeply worried” about the “chilling effect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring”.
But unions have accused the government of “exaggerating” the threat to push through new laws and said there was “no evidence” of a freedom of speech crisis at universities.
The government has put forward a bill that would create new requirements for universities and student unions over freedom of speech, with a regulator able to issue fines for any breaches.
Academics, students or visiting speakers would also be able to seek compensation through the courts if they suffer loss from a breach of the free speech duties.
Joe Mulhall from Hope not Hate said: “The government’s Bill isn’t about free speech, it is a political salvo in their ongoing culture war.
“The result of this lazy opportunism is that the government’s legislative attempts to score points could inadvertently result in Holocaust deniers and far-right extremists getting protections they don’t have now.”
The group’s head of research added: “Voters want to see free speech protected, but as society has for decades, they draw the line at harmful, hateful liars who will pollute the debate.
“The government must amend its legislation to ensure Holocaust deniers and others are not protected, or they should withdraw it entirely.”
Labour wanted to block the Bill at the second reading, arguing that 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.
But Mr Williamson responded by insisting the legislation “will not and never will create a platform for Holocaust deniers”.
A Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson said: “It is categorically untrue to suggest that this Bill will introduce new rights or protections for individuals who seek to harass others or spread extremist views.
“It is important to distinguish between lawful views and unacceptable acts of abuse, intimidation and violence.”
Additional reporting by Press Association
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies