Freedom of speech and security: an inevitable trade-off?

British universities fear the new counter-terror and security bill designed by Home Secretary Theresa May will curtail their freedom of expression. The bill, which will be subjected to parliamentary approval before the end of next month and which passed the House of Commons on Tuesday and received Royal Assent on Thursday, has the purpose of preventing radicalisation and extremism.

REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

One of its most controversial aspects is the inclusion of provisions for reducing the risk of radicalisation among university students. In fact, if the current design is approved, the bill will pose a duty on universities to prevent students from turning to terrorism. This means implementing measures to ban non-violent extremist speakers from campuses, requiring advance notice of the content of events, and it includes powers to charge university vice-chancellors with contempt of court backed by criminal sanctions if they fail to enforce the new statutory guidance. It effectively means that academics will have a legal duty to monitor their students.

Protests have come from multiple fronts. It has been pointed out by some that the government seems to not understand the difference between schools and universities. Not only lecturers have much less contact with their students than teachers, but also universities are a place where knowledge is acquired and produced through individuals’ own development and exposure through an intellectually challenging environment where different ideas and perspective constantly confront one another. As the former head of the civil service Lord Butrel of Brockwell said to Sky’s Murnagham program, “Schools have got a duty to teach children what’s right and what’s wrong … but universities are dealing with young adults”.

On the 3rd of February more than 520 university professors signed a letter to the Guardian in which they define the bill as “unnecessary and ill-conceived”. Universities already take “their duty of care towards students very seriously, and guidance is already in place to combat extremism in academic settings”, says the letter. Academics fear that the bill will inevitably compromise one of the key roles of institutions of higher education: promoting debate and freedom of speech. Moreover, many students associations have voiced concerns about the vagueness of the definition of “terrorism” adopted by the UK government, saying that it will create space for abuse and possible targeting of people who are dissatisfied with the system and advocate for change. The risk is then that students will feel they cannot express their opinions and ideas freely for fear of being called “extremists”.

It is also feared that the new duties will be impossible to enforce because, aside from the vagueness of the provisions, it is generally very difficult to have speakers announce in advance what exactly they will say at an event since it is not necessarily something they decide long before the date. Besides, it is quite unrealistic to think that monitoring university-organised events will make it possible to prevent radicalisation among students, as that can also easily happen during students’ interactions outside the classroom.

Perhaps the most crucial aspect of this bill is that anti-extremism is once again used to justify mass surveillance. After the tragic attacks in Paris last January and the most recent attacks in Copenhagen the media has been populated by statements in support of the right to freedom of speech and expression. It is then sadly ironic to see this right curbed as a response to those attacking it. As the letter signed by the British academics says: “The best response to acts of terror against UK civilians is to maintain and defend an open, democratic society in which discriminatory behaviour of any kind is effectively challenged. Ensuring colleges and universities can continue to debate difficult and unpopular issues is a vital part of this”. The government should perhaps put more effort into understanding why young Britons turn to terrorism and radicalisation and it is hard to see how silencing views can help doing this. If fundamentalism is to be opposed by freedom of speech then it is vital that everyone can enjoy this right. Otherwise the question, once again, is: “whose freedom of speech are we talking about?”

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