This article is more than 4 years old

Students are the future of democracy: don’t muzzle them

Alison Scott-Baumann and Simon Perfect of SOAS highlight the shortcomings of the Prevent regime, and how it has lead to wild interpretations of extremism on campus.
This article is more than 4 years old

Alison Scott-Baumann is Professor of Society and Belief at SOAS.

Simon Perfect is a researcher at Theos, the religion and society thinktank, and a Teaching Fellow at SOAS

In a recent report, the Henry Jackson Society lists 204 events at universities in the 2017-18 academic year it claims featured “speakers with a history of extreme or intolerant views, or representatives of extremist-linked organisations”.

This amounts, in its view, to an “industrial-scale failure by universities to apply their Prevent duties”, despite (as it acknowledges) the Office for Students reporting that 97% of universities are complying with their Prevent obligations.

What to make of this? Definitions are crucial in this debate. By the time you’ve read this piece I hope you will have a clearer idea of how the government understands extremism, although the official definition is still unclear. This only goes to show that the recently announced review of Prevent is timely and that the HJS’s so-called ‘extremism league table’ is nonsense.

What is Prevent preventing?

Extremism is defined by the government’s Prevent strategy as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and belief”.

This is a notoriously ambiguous definition which has proved so unworkable that the term extremism doesn’t appear in the latest version of the government’s counter-terrorism and border security bill. Yet HJS argue that universities are allowing speakers who fit this definition on campus and in so doing the universities are failing to fulfil their Prevent duty.

But this is to misrepresent the duty. The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (CSTA) 2015 requires HE bodies to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. Guidance issued by the Home Office in 2015 says that universities should consider the extent of the likelihood that views expressed at an event may “risk drawing people into terrorism”, and that if the university isn’t entirely convinced that the risk can be “fully mitigated”, then it should cancel the event.

However a judicial review (Butt v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2017]) concluded that:

The guidance needs to be read and understood for what it is. It is just that: guidance. It does not direct an outcome, let alone ‘ban’ or ‘direct’ the banning of speakers. It must be considered, but ‘following it’ in the absence of good reason can be a misleading approach… [98].

The judge also clarified that:

If there is some non-violent extremism, however intrinsically undesirable, which does not create a risk that others will be drawn into terrorism, the guidance does not apply to it [31].

In other words, universities need to have due regard to preventing people from being drawn into terrorism, but they don’t have to follow the government’s guidance document when doing so. In fact, universities can choose to prioritise their strong legal duties to uphold freedom of speech within the law for students, staff and speakers (as required by the Education Act 1986 and the CSTA itself) over their Prevent duty.

Furthermore, the government’s guidance will only apply to events where there is a risk that people will be drawn into terrorism. This is important because it reiterates that extremism is not the same as terrorism. People may have extreme views, but as long as they are not violent and within the law, they cannot be shut down, and universities should be cautious before thinking they must do so.

An unbalanced methodology

The methods you choose will determine the answers you get. Major research must reveal its methods clearly. The AHRC-funded research project, Re/presenting Islam on campus) that Scott Baumann led with Mathew Guest, Shuruq Naguib, Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor and Aisha Phoenix conducted pilot studies before interviewing 300 staff and students using a rigorous sampling procedure. A further 2,000 students answered a questionnaire, which was also trialled before use.

HJS says it applies a “peer reviewed methodology” so we need to know who their peers are. The report relies heavily on journalist claims about university events, which are frequently unreliable and confuse “extremism” and “controversy”. In some cases, the references HJS give to support claims about a speaker’s extremism don’t actually provide evidence at all, but simply link to further articles where HJS (or their subgroup Student Rights) make the same claims.

The underlying assumptions of the report are this: a speaker at a university made controversial (even abhorrent) remarks some time in the past; or is a member of an organisation led by someone who has made such remarks in the past, and so therefore s/he automatically shares the views of the leader and is likely to pass them on. When given exposure to students (usually in a one-off event on a sometimes mundane, non-controversial topic), we are told that the speaker poses a major risk of infecting their apparently naïve and vulnerable young minds with such views. These views, which may be repugnant but are perfectly legal, then make it likely a student will commit an act of terrorism.

At every stage this narrative breaks down logically. There is no evidence whatsoever that listening to a one-off lecture by a speaker who has made controversial – or even – extreme – but legal remarks in the past makes it more likely that a student will be drawn into terrorist activity.

A serious attempt to evaluate student activities on campus requires a proper survey of all activities. This will reveal – as all students’ unions know – that hundreds of activities take place without incident on campus every term. And every event is scrutinised with due diligence, and is carefully considered before approval.

The practical impact

The findings of the major AHRC project demonstrate very clearly that Muslim students and staff perceive themselves to be watched for signs of extremism. These signs may include growing a beard, wearing a hijab, getting books about Islam that are on their reading list out of the library, inviting Muslim speakers onto campus and proposing dissertation topics related to the Middle East. None of these actions is illegal or extreme.

There is also no evidence that anyone has ever been radicalised into acts of violence by campus activities. It is clear from the research that students who are not Muslims are feeling restricted by a chilling effect on freedom of speech, and that students’ union officers and staff who are not Muslims are self-censoring – for fear of getting into trouble by displeasing the Charity Commission or the local Prevent officer. They resent this in the interests of freedom of speech.

Robust discussion of sometimes controversial issues will encourage critical engagement with complex issues and understanding of the problems facing society and the world today. Students are the future of democracy and there should be more controversial speakers on campus, not fewer.

One response to “Students are the future of democracy: don’t muzzle them

  1. A mislabeled feature? Don’t dissent from any of the points made about Prevent. But clicked on the article hoping to read about democracy (pros and cons, likely future directions) and whether, for example, its possible to argue that students should in any way be held accountable for democratic outcomes past, present or future (Trump, Vote Leave, populism, you name it). Alas, this theme is only mentioned briefly right at the end with no resolution of the contradiction inherent in the title.

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