Prevent: Government’s counterterrorism programme is ‘single biggest threat’ to free speech at universities, report finds

‘The desire to interrupt the process of radicalisation is a laudable one, but we cannot let that desire override the very liberties and values that many of today’s terrorists seek to threaten’

Mother talks to Sky News about her concerns over Government's counter-terror Prevent scheme

The single biggest threat to free speech on university campuses is the government’s counterterrorism Prevent programme, a report has claimed.

Written and published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) the papers says that despite “strong rhetoric supporting free speech in universities”, the “current single biggest threat to free speech on UK campuses currently comes from the government’s own Prevent programme”.

Author of the report Corey Stoughton, an advocacy director at human rights group Liberty, said Prevent had a “demonstrable chilling effect on free speech in universities”.

She added: “Recognising that not everyone has equal access to speech, and that some people are disproportionately harmed by speech, doesn’t justify giving powerful institutions more power to censor speech.”

The report said: “Through the so-called Prevent strategy, the government imposes obligations on universities and members of university communities that either directly interfere with speech or have the foreseeable and actual effect of chilling the exercise of free expression.

“Section 26(1) of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 imposes on universities a duty to ‘have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism’. Statutory guidance on this duty requires universities to check that speakers are not likely to express ‘extremist’ views and, if they may express such views, to either take steps to limit the speech or, if they cannot limit the speech to manage the risk, force the cancellation of the event.”

The Home Office’s definition of extremism was not “coherent or workable”, the report said.

It added: “The desire to interrupt the process of radicalisation is a laudable one, but we cannot let that desire override the very liberties and values that many of today’s terrorists seek to threaten.”

Hepi director Nick Hillman said the report would challenge ministers to “be more careful when they are tempted to impose new restrictions on free expression”.

He added: “There are few justifications for limiting free speech beyond current laws. That is true whether it is students wanting to block provocateurs from speaking or government ministers mixing up the prevention of terrorism with blocking legitimate free expression.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The government completely supports free speech on campus, which is evidenced by our collaboration with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to develop new guidance that protects this right for students. It is incorrect to suggest otherwise.

“We have been clear that freedom of speech should be upheld at every opportunity and it is vital to the independence and innovation that embodies the higher education sector. No university should ever feel like they have to stop a debate simply because there are people who disagree with it.

“Prevent is a vital part of our counter-terrorism work which safeguards vulnerable people from being drawn into terrorism. The universities regulator recently found no cause for concerns on how institutions balance their free speech responsibilities and the Prevent duty.”

Press Association

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in