Not-so-free speech?

Balancing the rights of students to speak freely with the rights of religious groups is causing heated debate in campuses across the country, writes Paul Tyrrell
'We're going to get you," said the voice at the other end of the line, before resorting to expletives and an attack on its victim's sexuality. The target was not a political leader involved in the Middle East peace process, but Graham Hellerwell, president of Huddersfield University's student union last year. Just hours earlier he had refused to recognise an extremist group as part of the union.

Similar questions of free speech at universities were brought into focus again last month, with reports that reading had been banned in a kiosk in the student union at Leeds University, after complaints that a student had read Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses while on duty there during Islamic Awareness Week.

In their different ways, both cases highlighted the blurred line between the right to read, write and speak freely on campus, and need to ensure that this freedom is not misused or subverted.

Media interest in similar issues raised by the Internet has been intense over the past year. But long before the Internet existed, universities had a special reputation for upholding freedom of speech and diversity of opinion. Over the past couple of years, extremist groups have been showing themselves to be increasingly aware of the advantages of a strong presence on campus. Universities' tolerance of intolerance is being put to the test.

In November, the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals (CVCP) responded to the problem by setting up a working group to consider what advice can be given to universities faced with societies which incite racial, religious and political hatred. The idea is to standardise an approach to extremism, so that universities can act together to stamp out discriminatory propaganda. As the chairman, Professor Graham Zellick (vice-chancellor elect of the University of London), says: "Universities need

A step was taken towards this ideal last year when a contract system for student societies was drafted by the University of London union. The contract demands that a society does not advocate prejudiced views, or harass or discriminate against other students. Versions of the contract have been taken up by a number of students' unions.

One society that has refused to sign this kind of agreement is Hizb ut-Tahrir (Arabic for "Islamic Liberation Party"). HUT is committed to creating a khilafah - a fundamentalist Islamic state - by means of a jihad (holy war) against non-believers. The NUS has banned HUT from university campuses, claiming that they created a feeling of intimidation and harassment.

But Omar Bakri Mohammed, for years the leading light of HUT, formed a splinter group, Al-Muhajiroun ("The Emigrants") last year. This group, reportedly more extreme than HUT, is now under close scrutiny in student unions across the country, not least because of its apparently high level of organisation.

In an interview with The Guardian in August, Mr Mohammed explained how Al-Muhajiroun aimed to avoid any possible NUS ban by using cover names such as the Peace Society, the Ideological Society and the Human Society. "They will not be able to ban peace and human societies," he said. "If they do, it will only backfire."

Mr Mohammed has also said that his group intends to "use other people", including Bangladeshi, Pakistani and Nigerian societies, to spread its views. However, it faces opposition not only from the NUS, which pledges to resist it no matter what name it uses, but also from other Islamic societies. At the London School of Economics, the Islamic Society has successfully campaigned against the HUT.

Although some of HUT's literature is anti-democratic, sexist and homophobic, it probably generates most of its support at universities because of strong student views on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

Student concern over Middle Eastern politics was demonstrated at Manchester in October. There is no suggestion that HUT played a role in this event; rather, the involvement of mainstream religious societies and widespread student interest in the issues concerned led to some 2,500 people turning up at a union meeting in order to vote on a motion entitled "Anti-Racism/Palestine". The motion had been proposed by the president of Manchester University's Islamic Society, Noweed Ahmed, and called for the deregulation of any society which "defends, supports or advocates Israel's continuing violent occupation of Palestine".

Students' interest in the outcome of the debate had reached such a pitch by the time of the meeting that the venue was changed from the university's main debating hall to the 1,000-capacity ballroom of Manchester's Palace Hotel, with students transported from one to the other in a fleet of specially hired buses. However, the numbers of students were too great for even this amount of space to accommodate them, and it was decided to abandon the meeting in the interests of a fair vote. "No way can we carry on this meeting, because it would mean disenfranchising over half the people that wanted to attend," said Hugh Sims, the union's general secretary.

As the meeting broke up, various groups within the crowd conducted their own ad hoc debate, and in the ensuing weeks racial tension was high across the university. Mr Ahmed withdrew his motion from the next union meeting, and in a statement to the student newspaper, The Mancunion, he explained: "The purpose of the motion was to highlight the issue of racism both around campus and abroad. The waters were muddied, however, by a week-long scaremongering campaign." For their part, many who had opposed the motion believed it could potentially be used to exclude all Jewish societies from University life.

While the situation at Manchester remains volatile, it is a heated issue for debate rather than violence. Moreover, offers of conciliation have been discussed between the Jewish and Islamic societies at the university.

The threat made to Graham Hellerwell was very different; his caller was unafraid to terrorise perceived opponents. Nevertheless, Hellerwell remains pragmatic: "Freedom of speech is something of a double-edged sword," he says, "because it's difficult to know where to draw the line between opinion and intolerance. I think that everyone has the right to express their views so long as this doesn't impinge on the rights and views of other people."

The experience of Manchester's student union suggests that the CVCP working group report will be relevant to campuses across the country.

Meanwhile, Hellerwell's experience indicates that many people have a stake in its success.