Where next for freedom of speech?
Friday, February 20, 2015
The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill has faced strong opposition from across society, including a #stopthebill campaign on Twitter, having first been introduced in the Commons on 26th November last year.
The bill seeks to introduce a number of measures to deal with the increased threat of terrorism. Among them, the power to seize passports and exclude on a temporary basis, a legal obligation to monitor for extremism, as well as the establishment of de-radicalisation panels by local authorities.
The bill includes a legal duty on public services to report anyone at risk of being drawn into terrorism, which is given a rather woolly description to encompass ideological and political thinking, rather than any association with violence of any sort. This obligation extends to, amongst others, schools, GPs, prisons and universities.
Freedom of speech is an issue that is widely debated throughout society and especially within universities. Recently, 500 university professors urged Theresa May to rethink her proposals urgently to curb campus extremists. In a letter to the Guardian, the professors said that the proposed counter-terror plan was unnecessary and ill-conceived and that it was paramount that academic freedom remains uncompromised by efforts to tackle extremism in Britain.
The counter-terror plan would see a legal duty placed on academics to prevent students being drawn into terrorism and all visiting speakers would have to have their speeches vetted in advance.
Since the first reading of the bill, additional protection for academic freedom has been added but concerns still persist. A key issue seems to be whether or not universities will be required to exclude people holding views that, while extremist, are non-violent.
Universities have long been recognised as bastions of free speech and tolerance within UK society, even in the face of fresh threats to security, we must ensure that this continues. A strong response to acts of terror against the UK is to maintain an open and democratic society in which discrimination of any kind is challenged. Debating difficult and unpopular issues is a key part of this and crackdowns on these rights will not help the government in what they are trying to achieve.