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’

Flora Thompson
Thursday 27 June 2019 12:23
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

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