Theresa May’s proposed counter-terrorism and security bill which is currently being debated in Parliament has been condemned by Student Unions around the country for being a significant threat to freedom of expression. Among these unions who have joined arm in arm to stand against the new proposal include LSE, Manchester University, SOAS and most recently Leeds University. 

Universities are supposed to be centers of academic debate and discussion, and there is fear that the new legislation will stifle freedom of open expression that is vital to education and democracy. Part 5 of the proposed bill states that these very institutions have an obligation to prevent students from being ‘radicalised’. This would mean dictating which speakers are allowed on campus and which are branded ‘extremist’. And there is a dispute as to how this can co-exist with current human right responsibilities regarding freedom of speech. 

There is also the question of how do you decide who is at risk of ‘radicalisation’? While the new bill suggests that university staff have the authority to spy on students and report anyone who they suspect to be an ‘extremist’, the Government’s counter-terror programme, Prevent, also states that a ‘need for identity, meaning and belonging, a desire for political or moral change, and relevant mental health issues’ are signs of extremism. 

Over 500 UK lecturers have condemned the bill, deeming the proposal ‘both unnecessary and ill-conceived’.

In the wake of Charlie Hebdo, this could be seen as a hypocritical move by the British Government, especially by David Cameron and Theresa May who have both publicly voiced their support for the right of freedom of expression. 

The bill poses a danger to innocent individuals who could be subjected to unjust and discriminatory accusation. For example, desiring moral change is a rational response to political realities that are consistently creating and perpetuating injustice, not a sign of ‘extremist’ tendencies. 

This new legislation will turn academic institutions into spying apparatuses for a police state that will turn the welfare issues of students into those of national security. 

New legal obligations placed on academic institutions will make them less tolerant of challenging and diverse topics, which is counterproductive to combating security issues; it not only narrows down freedom of speech but would reduce the challenging of discriminatory behaviour. We must ensure that academic institutions retain their right to openly debate and discuss all issues, because freedom of expression is a vital factor in stifling threats to national security.

 

By Ryan Coe