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Putting the ‘free’ back in free speech

Putting the ‘free’ back in free speech

Categories: Latest News

Monday February 18 2019

The topic of free speech on campus has been reignited as more universities are triggering the infamous ‘No Platform’ policy with the inherent consequence of curtailing free speech. The ‘No Platform’ policy was originally created to prohibit speech that is illegal, (i.e. incites hatred or violence, particularly towards a protected characteristic). Nonetheless, the concern is that the ‘No Platform’ policy is being used to exclude voices from political opposition, or more specifically, those who are perceived to contravene so called British Values.

There have been occasions where ISOC’s (Islamic Societies) have been flagged even though they did not necessarily express political opposition. On the other hand, there are countless examples where non-Muslims have expressed political opposition (such as socialist/communist societies) but were not flagged and there have also been instances where speakers have had a platform to reinforce Islamophobic rhetoric and not been flagged. To illustrate this point, consider the case of twelve-year-old Janna Jihad (the youngest journalist) from Palestine who was invited to speak at the University of Westminster. Immediately prior to the event she was flagged as a “security risk” which required that her questions be preapproved, and thus censoring or restricting her space to share her own personal experiences and thoughts. In contrast, Katie Hopkins, a well-known controversial figure who frequently spouts xenophobic narratives in the media, was invited to speak (although she didn’t) and yet was not flagged by the university administration.

The National Union of Students launched a Muslim Student Survey in 2017, to collect data on the experiences of Muslim students in universities. The report “highlights the chilling effect of the UK Government’s counter-terrorism initiative PREVENT on Muslim students”.

Prevent is a government counter terrorism strategy to protect citizens from becoming radicalised or drawn to terrorism. In 2015 it became a statutory duty on public servants to flag any one they believe is at risk of radicalisation to the authorities. According to the Home Office however, muslims have been disproportionately referred to Prevent due to their religious convictions. One in three students were found to have been negatively impacted by the PREVENT policy with 43% of Muslim students feeling a sense of censorship and powerlessness in expressing their views. They also felt isolated from engaging in political discourse and activism, facing greater obstacles than their non-Muslim counterparts, such as running for elected positions in their students’ unions.

Professor Scott-Baumann at SOAS also echoes this perspective. She states “you have the Prevent counter-terrorism strategy, which means that some people can speak freely and some can’t. So if you’re a person of colour or you wear clothes that make it look like you might be Muslim, then you are regarded as possibly needing to be prevented from being radicalised and this means ‘protecting’ you from discussion of complex international situations. What this means now is that Muslims and people of colour are self-censoring.” From this she stresses the importance of having safe spaces as a precedence for free speech.

The criticism against the effectiveness of PREVENT has long been voiced by academics, NGO’s, security experts, UN Special Rapporteurs and teachers alike. In 2015, 350 academics from across the country signed an open letter to the Government outlining flaws innate within the PREVENT strategy. The letter stated that “PREVENT will have a chilling effect on open debate, free speech and political dissent. It will create an environment in which political change can no longer be discussed openly and will withdraw to unsupervised spaces. Therefore, PREVENT will make us less safe.” They went on to state that “PREVENT has failed not only as a strategy but also the very communities it seeks to protect.”

Indeed, universities’ duties with respect to free speech are reflected in the Education Act 1986, the Education Reform Act 1988, the Human Rights Act 1998, and the Equality Act 2010. According to the Department of Education at the University of Oxford, “Criticising government policy, expression of support for specific groups, identifying causal relations between policies, processes and events, subjecting public arguments to evaluation and critique — these are all legitimate aspects of academic work. They also contribute to public and political debate.” It is evident that by all academic standards, in voicing students concerns, students are performing their duty as both an academic and an engaged member of civic society.

Therefore, it is clear that PREVENT is an embedded manifestation of institutionalised Islamophobia not only in the education sector, but also within wider society. Overall, critics have found PREVENT to be fundamentally flawed with the Vice Chancellor of Oxford University commenting that PREVENT is‘wrong-headed’. For an analysis of the flaws, you can read MEND’s position paper here.

On the 22nd of January 2019 the Government conceded to an independent review of PREVENT. MEND is of the firm belief that the PREVENT duty should be repealed and welcomes this independent review of PREVENT as an important first step in tackling the detrimental impact of ill-conceived counter-terror strategies that hinder Muslims’ abilities to fully enjoy their social, civic, religious, political, and economic rights.

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