UK’s hypocritical Free Speech Policy

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Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management/ editorial team or those of fellow authors.

The British government recently announced that it will appoint a Free Speech and Academic Freedom Champion (FSaAFC) to universities. The FSaAFC will have the responsibility to uphold free speech and investigate instances where violations have taken place, such as no-platforming speakers or dismissal of academics from their institutions, after expressing opinions on sensitive topics. In the proposed plans, the regulator will be the Office for Students, who will have the remit to impose sanctions such as financial penalties for breaching the conditions (Gov.uk, 2021). 

The Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, said in an interview: 

“Free speech underpins our democratic society and our universities have a long and proud history of being places where students and academics can express themselves freely, challenge views and cultivate an open mind […] but I am deeply worried about the chilling ef ect on campuses of unacceptable silencing and censoring.” (Sky News, 2021) 

While this may seem like a good government proposal in displaying concern to strengthen free speech in higher education, it conflicts with the existing implementation of the controversial Prevent strategy in universities. Prevent does exactly what Mr Williamson is most worried about – silencing and censoring. 

The Prevent strategy is one strand of the UK’s counter-terrorism strategy, CONTEST, with the aim to prevent support or affiliation with terrorism. It has three main objectives: 1) effectively respond to the ideological challenge of terrorism and the threat we face; 2) prevent people from being drawn into terrorism and ensure that they are given appropriate advice and support; 3) work with sectors and institutions where there are risks of radicalisation (HM Government, 2018). 

In 2015, Prevent became a legal duty thus the implementation of the strategy is obligatory in public institutions in the UK, ranging from healthcare provisions to schools. Staff are given training so that they can monitor and report individuals who show ‘signs’ of extremism and radicalisation (Fernandez, 2018). This method of monitoring is highly controversial as it emphasizes the logics and prejudices of Islamophobia through practices of surveillance, such as gathering intelligence on primarily Muslim communities (Sian, 2015: 184). Following this, individuals who are suspected to be at risk of radicalisation are then referred to the Channel programme where they are given support to keep them away from the spaces where they are supposedly being ‘radicalised’ and are promoted British values (Ramsay, 2017: 148). 

The government claims that the policies do not target a specific demographic, yet the official statistics display otherwise; over 65% of the referrals to Prevent were Muslim in 2016 (Prevent Watch). The reason for this can be traced back to the content of the training packages received by civil society workers. For example, substantial changes in appearance or behaviour of an individual is deemed as a warning sign and within the training this is examined through a scenario when: 

“a Muslim school girl who replaces her Western dress and socialising activities, with wearing a hijab and taking a keen interest in Islam. This change in appearance/ behaviour is framed as an early warning that she could go on to potentially engage within extremist activity” (Sian, 2017: 4) 

This clearly validates claims that the Prevent strategy disproportionately targets the Muslim community, and the practicing of the religion is correlated with the causation of violence and extremism. The implementation of such an Islamophobic strategy has inevitably had worrying repercussions within students especially in higher education settings. 

Universities should remain as safe spaces where students are exposed to different views, even ones that are deemed controversial, and be encouraged to discuss and challenge these with the knowledge they acquire throughout their studies to develop their own opinions. However, if Muslim students’ opinions and their activities on campus are targeted through constant monitoring and surveillance, then inevitably they will refrain from such conversations. The long-term consequence of this is that students can develop feelings of anxiousness, or frustration for not having the freedom to express their opinions, due to the fear of being criminalised. Therefore, the repercussions of implementing the Prevent strategy clearly contradicts the aims of the FSaAFC. Thus, the impact of Prevent must be addressed first, before executing a new free speech initiative for there to be a potential effect. Regarding the significance of open debate in universities, Alison Scott-Baumann, a professor of Society and Belief at SOAS, rightly noted that: 

“Students are the future of democracy and if we do not encourage them to openly debate these dif icult issues – how are they going to manage the world when they have finished at university?’’ (Busby, 2018) 

Muslims being disproportionately affected has had chilling effects on campus; Prevent has created a culture of fear among students across various UK universities. As a result, research has found that students as well as staff at universities are having to self-censor their speech when expressing their political or religious views, due to the fear of being referred to the Channel programme (Uddin, 2020). Furthermore, this fear has also had an impact on the choice that students make regarding their studies. Increasingly, Muslim students are avoiding certain modules during their courses. For example, it is becoming common for students to avoid modules on terrorism or related topics so that they do not have to take books from the library which cover sensitive topics, even though they are assigned by the lecturers as part of the reading lists (Busby, 2018). It is apparent that a student’s educational interest becomes conflated with terrorism, thereby limiting their freedom to pursue certain subjects. 

These concerns are only the tip of the iceberg and the Prevent strategy has been highly criticised by many including the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR). Their report published in 2018 found that:

“[the] fear of being reported for organising or attending an event, combined with the increased levels of bureaucracy following the introduction of the Prevent Duty, was reported to be having a chilling ef ect on freedom of speech”  (Department for Education, 2021). 

Therefore, it is ironic that the government is taking extensive measures by appointing a FSaAFC to universities. Their concern regarding silencing and censoring cannot seem genuine when considered alongside the effects of the Prevent strategy. Instead, the government aims to decide what is classified as good and bad speech on campus through continued monitoring and regulation (Scott-Baumann, 2021). While appointing a FSaAFC may appear as a step in a positive direction to cement free speech in universities, its implementation is hindered by the mere existence of Prevent, as the two policies conflict one another. Will it challenge the long-standing effects of Prevent and instil new confidence to those who feel unproportionally targeted? 

References 

Busby, E., 2018. Government’s counterterrorism is limiting texts and topics students can access, experts say. [online] The Independent. Available at:  [Accessed 17 March 2021]. 

Department for Education, 2021. Higher education: free speech and academic freedom. GOV.UK. 

Gov.uk. 2021. Landmark proposals to strengthen free speech at universities. [online] Available at:

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