What's PREVENTing Free Speech on Campus

What's PREVENTing Free Speech on Campus

UK Government policy has a ‘chilling effect on free speech’ in universities, says Advocacy Director at Liberty

The debate around free speech in universities often centres around snowflakes pushing for the no-platforming of figures they find to be too controversial or divisive to be allowed onto the campuses of British universities. 

Think-pieces and columns have, for the last few years, discussed the growing sensitivity amongst students who have rallied to prevent, mostly right-wing, speakers from university events. The threat to the freedom of speech became so flagrant that last year, for the first time in thirty years, the Government decided to intervene in universities that failed to uphold free speech. 

Some UK university students have thus found the conclusion of a report published last month by the Higher Education Policy Institute, in defence of free speech in universities, to be ironic. The ‘Free Speech and Censorship on Campus’ report says ‘the true threat to free speech on campus is the Government's policies’. The report, written by Corey Stoughton director of advocacy at the human rights organisation Liberty, makes the bold claim that the Government is undertaking a ‘Trumpian manoeuvre to distract from a series of Government policies that deliberately set out to stifle debate’. 

According to a poll by HEPI, only 14% of students ‘agree’ and ‘completely agree’ that student unions should ban speakers that ‘may cause offence to some students’ - a significantly small proportion considering the amount of media attention the issue has gathered. On the other hand, there have been numerous claims that the British Prevent policy, a strand of the British government’s counter-terrorism strategy, is, in fact, counterproductive. Critics say it ‘fosters fear and censorship at universities’, and that radicalised self-censorship has spread to all public institutions where Prevent operates. 

Stoughton’s report goes on to detail:

‘A recent research study […] showed that many Muslim students modify their behaviour as result of Prevent by self-censoring or disengaging from campus life [...] The study also shows that Prevent produced wariness among Muslim and non-Muslim students about participating in research on religion, freedom of speech and campus life.’ 

In March 2018, two months before Sam Giyah’s decision to intervene in universities to no-platform controversial speakers, the Joint Committee on Human Rights concluded, after extensive research, that: ‘the extent to which students restrict free speech at universities should not be exaggerated. Where it happens, it is a serious problem and it is wrong. But it is not a pervasive problem.’ 

Patrick Kilduff, the president of Edinburgh University Students’ Association told the Joint Committee in 2018 that he believed Prevent ‘is stopping marginalised groups, Jewish students, Muslim students, black and minority ethnic students from being able to voice their concerns and host events’.

The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 Section 26(1), states that, as part of the Prevent duty, universities ‘must, in the exercise of its functions, have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn to terrorism’ and report ‘extremist’ views. 

The Home Office defines extremism as being the ‘vocal or active opposition to our fundamental values, including the rule of law, individual liberty, and the mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs’. Stoughton argues that the expansiveness of the definition and the Government’s own contradictions mean that the judgement of ‘extremism’ and the application of the Prevent policy is limited to students and academics who are considered to be more at risk of extremism, which, given the current political climate, leads to racial profiling of those without what she considers to be ‘white privilege’.  

Redwan Shahid, former Vice President of Education at Queen Mary Students’ Union, supported Stoughton’s stance on Prevent’s effects on speech. 'Prevent has a lot of indirect consequences on the wellbeing and engagement of Muslim students in particular', he told The Simple Press.

Despite the poll by HEPI and the recent report, politicians, such as Higher Education Minister Jo Johnson, feel it is important to still keep in mind the pressure of ‘no-platform’ protests and movements at universities. Sam Gyimah MP and Minister for Universities, told Parliament:

'just as important is what is hard to measure: the large number of events which do not happen at all, either because organisers are worried about obstruction or because the overzealous enforcement of rules makes them seem more trouble than they are worth [ … ] some of this is quite difficult to gather evidence for.'

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