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Countering terrorism or preventing free speech?

University students are at the forefront of a battle against the government’s Prevent policy which, they say, turns students into suspects and academics into informants.

Students Not Suspects toured the country speaking out against the policy and will be holding a day of action on 7 December 2015.

The duty, under section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 covers not only universities and higher education institutions but also schools and registered childcare providers, as well as healthcare providers, prisons and probation, and local authorities.

The duty on public bodies is to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. Regardless of the issues with any public body having to comply with this duty, its implications in our higher education establishments is chilling.

‘Terrorism’ is defined in section 1 of the Terrorism Act 2000, as the use or threat of action, inside or outside the United Kingdom:

(a) involving serious violence against a person, involving serious damage to property, endangering another person’s life, creating a serious risk to public health or safety, or designed to seriously interfere with or seriously disrupt an electronic system;
(b) designed to influence a government or intergovernmental organization or to intimidate the public or a section of the public; and
(c) made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial, or ideological cause.

The need to have “due regard” is a hugely broad concept and relies on non-legal professionals having an understanding of a complex legislative definition. The likely outcome is that public bodies will err on the side of caution and restrict the expression of views and activities which, though controversial or not mainstream, fall far short of ‘terrorism’, and/or that individuals will be too fearful to express those views or partake in those activities and self-censor unnecessarily. There is a very real risk that the Prevent “due regard” will stop important issues and views being publicised, scrutinised and debated; ultimately it could have a fundamental chilling effect on freedom of expression.

The Channel policy is also part of Prevent, it asks the public sector to report signs of possible ‘extremism’. The government issued guidance defines ‘extremism’ as a “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

In the context of education or academia, one wonders how far a debate on democracy might go before it becomes a ‘vocal opposition’, and whether a person’s religion might affect whether or not a referral is made. Fear of breaching the guidance may lead to pre-emptive silencing of debate and self-censorship of much needed critical discussion. By way of example, the British Library recently refused to host a digital archive of material relating to the Taliban because of worries about the legal implications of allowing access to it. The library had other reasons for refusing to hold the archive, such as its complexity and copyright issues. However, there is some irony in the host of the Magna Carta anniversary exhibition refusing to host this academic material out of fear of modern day law.

Governments throughout history have always targeted and recorded the activities of many who it considers ‘extremist’, creating secret ‘blacklists’ of strikers, recording the activities of journalists, protesters and politicians (like the Green Party peer Jenny Jones) on what is now referred to as a ‘domestic extremism’ database.

The recent tragic events in Paris, Beirut and Mali will for those who support these policies, provide all too ready examples of why we should maintain our vigilance against terror in all areas of life. However, we should also remain vigilant against more subtle threats to our democracy and the very ‘fundamental British values’ of rule of law, liberty and mutual respect.