The government’s new Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill currently making its way through the House of Lords has worrying implications for free speech within universities should it become law. It seeks to change universities from bastions of freedom of expression and incisive debate into corridors of censorship. Forcefully placing the government’s fear of a Britain rampant with extremist ideology firmly upon the shoulders of the very people who understand these ideologies and research and question them is hugely misguided.
By extending the existing anti-extremist ‘Prevent’ program into statutory law and putting a legal obligation on public bodies to stop terrorism, the government is placing a potential cloud of suspicion on all who might involve themselves with anything that could be considered ‘extremist’. University staff would be obliged to monitor students to check they aren’t being drawn into terrorism, and all speakers would have to be announced two weeks in advance to be vetted in case they held extremist views.
The vagueness of this will create an uneasy climate in academic institutions; who decides what is extremist and what is not? What does extremist actually mean? Is it a speech calling for the beheading of the Prime Minister or is it a robust and forceful criticism of British foreign policy? The government has offered no clarification and this is precisely why this legislation is so dangerous.
Herein lies the problem with forcing universities, by law, to report any potential extremist activity. Firstly, there is no coherent idea of what to look for, so anything could potentially be considered extremist and be reported.
Secondly, an expectation that university staff monitor their students would have a devastating effect on the academic freedom that university provides. Students should not be worried that their academic work and interests could be considered extremist and of interest to the security services and they should be able to attend talks and hear speakers of all views and be given the respect to form their own opinions on what they hear.
Thirdly, the government of the day could change the goalposts regarding what is considered extremist, forcing universities to then monitor and report on, say, green activists, left-wing student organisations or any other such group. Whole groups of students will fall under suspicion depending on what this season’s extremism is, purely for holding different or radical views. Will Abdul be suspected more than Sarah for raising the same point about the sickening effect of Western foreign policy? Will the radical socialist embarking upon a march be suspected more than the young neo-liberal advocating a lower tax rate?
This has already happened in the past under existing rules and guidelines that universities have to abide by.
In 2008 Dr. Rizwaan Sabir was studying terrorist tactics for his Masters at the University of Nottingham when he was arrested on terrorism charges for downloading an Al-Qaeda training manual. He had downloaded this manual from a US government website, and it was also available in his university’s own shop. Held for one week without charge and then released, it later transpired that police had fabricated evidence against him. Dr. Sabir was eventually awarded £20000 in compensation for his ordeal.
Increasingly in our society we are told that the threat of terrorism is so severe that we must, yet again, surrender more of our civil liberties to the government. That this usually comes immediately after a terrorist attack or news of a plot foiled by the security services will be of no surprise to many. The UK has had seven major pieces of counter-terror legislation, including this latest bill, since 2000. We have had only two terrorist attacks on our soil since then, and the perpetrators were all known and under surveillance to the security services. Clearly then, the security services and police already have enough powers of surveillance without needing to monitor universities.
In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris it seemed that the entire world’s leaders joined together in a harmonious declaration to the commitment to, and protection of, free speech. The need for this protection of free speech was highlighted in bloody fashion over three days.
It is then no surprise that only several weeks later new draconian counter-terror legislation is announced to help secure our way of life against the threat of terror. Indeed it will secure our way of life, as we seem to have sleepwalked into a new way of life; one where we are constantly worried by overblown threats, encouraged to be suspicious of difference and comfortingly stripped of our civil liberties so ‘they’ can be watched. We must wake up, because before long, the mere questioning of the status quo will be labelled extremist.