Between November and December 2017, the Joint Committee on Human Rights has held an inquiry into the state of freedom of speech in universities. So far they have received testimonies from a range of expert witnesses who are distinguished in the fields of academia, politics, law, journalism and wider civil society.
The scope of this parliamentary inquiry considers whether government policy in this area is coherent. It also examines the Prevent duty’s attempts to balance multiple legal requirements, looks at the role of student unions and the new Office for Students (OfS), as well as reviewing examples of freedom of speech being suppressed on campus.
Richard Black, Research Manager of Student Rights, has made a written submission to the inquiry. In it, he argued in favour of the Prevent strategy, outlined cases where freedom of speech has been restricted by students, and called for a robust approach to balanced platforms and instances of extremism in universities.
He remarked that a close reading of the Prevent duty demonstrates that it carefully balances convention rights and public interest considerations. This was very much the case in ‘Butt vs Secretary of State for the Home Department’ (2017), in which Judge Duncan Ouseley concluded that “understanding why people are drawn into terrorist-related activity, and seeking to prevent them from being drawn into that activity, is a proper and necessary activity of the state”.
Far from threatening academic freedom, Richard argued that the Prevent duty actually benefits freedom of speech by requiring non-violent extremism to be sufficiently challenged through balanced platforms and/ or impartial moderators. As speaker events assume an imbalance of power between speakers and students, it is especially important to develop resilience within higher education.
The extremist threat to young people is severe enough to warrant these countermeasures. Not only have there been numerous cases of students being radicalised whilst studying at university, but the most recent Home Office statistics revealed that over half of the referees to Channel were individuals under the age of 20. A 2017 Henry Jackson Society report calculated that 22 was the average age of arrest for an Islamist-related offence. Prevent is clearly a necessary programme in challenging extremism at universities.
There is no evidence of the Prevent duty threatening freedom of speech at universities. In fact, there has been a large increase in events featuring extremists. This spike in extremist activity has been accompanied by student-organised campaigns dedicated to the abolition of Prevent. These campaigns have repeatedly hosted events with representatives of organisations with histories of extremism, such as CAGE and MEND.
Richard emphasised that freedom of speech is more likely to be threatened by students than by Prevent. The two far-right events recorded in the Student Rights report, both of which featured former English Defence League (EDL) leader Tommy Robinson, were cancelled due to protests and negative publicity. Furthermore, Richard detailed how this arbitrary and selective application of the no-platforming principle has also targeted high profile progressive campaigners, such as Germaine Greer, Maryam Nawazie and Peter Tatchell.
Concluding his submission, Richard noted that extremist groups remain a growing problem on university campuses. He recommended that Student Unions and student societies make greater use of balanced panels to ensure that extreme or controversial speakers are not left unscrutinised. The Student Rights report found that only one out of 112 events took place within a balanced setting in 2016-17.
Freedom of speech includes the freedom to criticise the views and opinions of speakers. Student Rights’ central message is that challenging extreme speakers should be welcomed, and no audience members must feel intimidated to speak out.