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Freedom of speech on campus and the Counter-terrorism and Security Bill

Freedom of speech on campus and the Counter-terrorism and Security Bill

Categories: Latest News

Monday February 02 2015

The Guardian, Independent and Daily Telegraph report on further criticism levelled at the Home Secretary over the plans to introduce a statutory duty on universities compelling them to abide by Guidance on the Prevent strategy.

The plans were criticised last week by former Director of Public Prosecutions, Lord Ken MacDonald in a column in The Times. His piece was followed by a letter signed by a number of university vice-chancellors who wrote that the Government “does not appear to have considered how the bill will relate to universities’ existing duties and codes of practice concerning freedom of speech and academic freedom.”

The question of conflict between the statutory duty and the 1986 Education Act’s duty for universities to preserve freedom of speech on campus is covered in the Independent today in its report on opinion formed by Robert Moretto QC.

Moretto, who has been called on to advise universities on the impending duty, argues conflict will arise because the Education Act provision exists “to ensure that academic staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institution”.

The Guardian and the Daily Telegraph add that Lord Butler, former head of the home civil service and a former master of University College, Oxford, has criticised the plans as treating universities like schools.

Speaking to Dermot Murnaghan on Sky News at the weekend, Lord Butler said:

“[Universities have] also got a legal obligation to encourage free speech within the law … The government is really treating universities as if they are schools. Schools have got a duty to teach children what’s right and what’s wrong … but universities are dealing with young adults. The whole point of university is that they should have a good deal of freedom to hear different opinions and make up their own minds on what’s right or wrong.

“As somebody said, the radicalisation is much more likely to go on over coffee in students’ rooms rather than at public meetings … I think it’s very likely that this week there will be an amendment to exclude universities … I hope that the government will write into the law alongside it the duty to allow free speech, and that they will look extremely carefully at the directions they are giving under this new law.”

Curtailing freedom of speech on campus has been the bugbear of particular advocates who have sought to demonstrate, not very convincingly, that universities are ‘hotbeds of extremism’ and like much else in the Government’s Prevent strategy there is little evidence of the claims being substantiated with use of robust empirical evidence.

While universities have champions in their corner opposing the Government’s Bill, little has been said about the duty to be imposed on nurseries by virtue of the same piece of pending legislation. The scope of the statutory duty envisages in the Counter-terrorism and Security Bill raises palpable fears of a return to the enormous mistakes made by the former Labour government on preventing violent extremism.


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