Current Affairs

UK Government set to criminalise Free Intellectual Discussion at UK Universities

Anti-terror bill: making radical ideas a crime on campus

by  [originally posted Guardian 2nd December 2014]

Laura Clayson, Lancaster's students' union president, with the posters that attracted police attention. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Laura Clayson, Lancaster’s students’ union president, with the posters that attracted police attention. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

On the first day of Freshers’ Week, Lancaster University’s students’ union president got a message that police were photographing two posters in her office window. One said “Not for Shale”, the other: “End Israel’s attacks on Gaza”.

“A union officer asked [the police] why the photos were being taken and was told that I was potentially committing a public order offence,” says Laura Clayson, 24.

Public order offences relate to the use of violence or intimidation by either an individual or a group, so this could have been serious. The police officer in question later came to Clayson’s office and said he was taking pictures around campus to find out what students were feeling concerned about. “It was a completely ridiculous excuse,” she says.

Clayson, who is also an environmental activist, was even more worried when the officer said he “knew of my ‘history’ … I felt like the whole incident was an intimidation tactic, reinforced by this reference to my past.”

It’s the sort of incident, with overtones of surveillance and threat, that concerns both students and academics. And now the home secretary, Theresa May, has said that under the terms of the new counter-terrorism bill, universities must have “due regard … to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”, or they could face court orders compelling them to do so.

Many academics are worried that this bill is expecting too much of universities, and could clash with one of their guiding principles: to encourage the free expression and analysis of ideas, no matter how unpleasant.

Dr Simon Mabon, director for politics and international relations at Lancaster, says: “A university is supposed to be a forum where people can develop critical tools that enable them to criticise the orthodoxy, and that can lead into some unpalatable areas. Then we would engage with them, in lectures and in seminars where students are challenged by other students and their tutors … I don’t think it’s the government’s place to tell universities what can and can’t be talked about.”


May’s bill aims “to have a chilling effect – that is one of its objectives,” says Cardiff University’s Prof Michael Levi, a criminologist who has studied the financing of terrorism. “One of the things this will lead to is more intensive monitoring of societies within universities.”

At Lancaster, Mabon recently organised a discussion about Isis at which, he says, invited experts felt they could not speak frankly in an open forum. They were worried that undercover police or officials might be in the audience. There was also concern that their words might be taken out of context and circulated more widely, putting them at risk. Clearly no one can learn about an urgent policy issue if those who understand it best are too scared to speak.

Although the bill talks about “extremism” in general terms, Teesside University’s Prof Matthew Feldman – an expert on the far right who has advised government on measures to prevent radicalisation – has no doubt that it is really aimed at Muslim extremists, without anyone in government quite being willing to say so. Feldman acknowledges, though, that he is torn. “I don’t think Theresa May is lying when she says it’s a real threat. Islamic extremism is an issue. The question becomes: is this the best way of tackling it?” he says.

“What is not clear to me is that the people who have been convicted of plots were radicalised at university. There is no convincing evidence of that at all. Do we have a large number of terrorists who’ve been to university? Yes. But that tells us more about terrorists – that they can be people who are intelligent – than it does about universities. There is no evidence that the problem is bigger at universities than it is on Hyde Park Corner.”

There is, Feldman points out, no right to unfettered freedom of expression – but judging when to curb it is a delicate matter. And legislation is rarely delicate or subtle. “I might run around campus nude, and say it’s my right to express myself. But that’s not acceptable. If someone wants to take an immoderate position on Israel or Palestine, should I accept that the same restriction applies? Throwing bombs is obviously not acceptable, but trafficking ‘unacceptable’ ideas, what about that? They are just ideas.”

According to Bath University’s Prof Bill Durodié, an expert in the causes and perceptions of security risk, the bill is based on the false assumption “that young people are vulnerable and susceptible to the power of suggestion”. He says: “We know that individuals who choose to affiliate themselves to al-Qaida or Isis are the opposite of vulnerable; they tend to be quite bolshy. There’s a kind of child protection approach that suggests what are, by the time they get to university, autonomous adults, are not autonomous adults at all. It’s infantilising.”

From the Council for the Defence of British Universities, Howard Hotson, professor of early modern intellectual history at Oxford, argues that May’s bill is a logical extension of what he describes as the coalition’s redefinition of education’s core purpose – a paid-for service to acquire the skills necessary to advance the UK’s prosperity. “In this new environment, those fundamental intellectual disciplines most necessary for demolishing an extremist’s arguments – logical, rhetorical, and linguistic analysis; moral reasoning; the sifting of historical evidence – are now disparaged as virtually useless, and, more pointedly, not worth £27,000 plus living expenses to acquire,” he says.

“If we now need to shield students from unorthodox ideas, is this not because we are now committed to educating knowledge workers, rather than informed citizens, who need to be defended by government-imposed censorship because they can no longer be expected to be able to defend themselves intellectually?”

What exactly will universities do? Universities UK says it will be involved in the drafting of the accompanying statutory guidance, which will be subject to public consultation.

Tom Slater, who co-ordinates the Down With Campus Censorship campaign for the political online magazine Spiked, says that universities already operate rigorous speaker screening policies. “It is already difficult for students to invite a speaker who is even possibly controversial.” Even the students’ own union, the NUS, he points out, denies a platform to speakers from certain proscribed organisations but also people that are not, including the feminist Julie Bindel and politician George Galloway.

Durodié believes the government has its eye on the wrong target. Rather than crudely banning speakers, he suggests, it is more important to understand that radicalism does not happen suddenly. “The fact that those words and images may connect with an individual begs the question of why they may fall on such fertile soil to begin with. And that’s the bit that the government’s not engaging with,” he says. For politicians, it can be “too discomfiting” to accept that contemporary culture is a significant contributor to the problem of emerging extremist views. “It’s a social problem, not a security problem. But then you’re asking politicians to engage in a wider debate about society’s problems, and they’re not keen to do that. The political process has become about managing the British state, rather than shaping it.”

May has also been accused of intellectual cowardice. “Does the Home Office really believe that our universities lack the capacity to defend civilised values in free and open debate?” Hotson asks. “And what will banning extremists from open public debate on campus achieve? Won’t they just congregate off campus, and propagate their doctrines secretly instead? If the extremist’s opinions are demonstrably odious and absurd, then what better way could there possibly be to expose them than the bright light of open, public debate? If such debate is to be banned from the university, then where in society can it possibly take place?”

At Lancaster, Clayson is still baffled and disturbed at the police’s behaviour. She still has her Gaza poster, but it no longer faces outwards from her window. It’s on an internal wall instead. She was, she says “a bit anxious” about being interviewed for this article, in case there was backlash, perhaps from the police. “It’s scary being out there because you’re living what your politics are,” she says. “It’s hard to be that person who’s always speaking out.”

With academics and campaigners concerned about existing restrictions on free speech, let alone, according to Feldman, “the danger of mission creep” if the new bill goes through, it may be that, in future, students are unwilling to speak out at all.

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