Preventing free speech on campus

The academic year has again begun with universities forced to act in accordance with the government’s Prevent strategy. Prevent was first introduced in 2006, as part of the Blair-led Labour government’s ‘anti-terrorist’ measures. It was changed by the Tories in 2011 and, four years later, put on a statutory basis. This compelled public bodies to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”.

As there’s no evidence that Prevent has stopped any acts of violence but plenty that it is racist and has lessened freedom of speech, opposition to it has grown from many organisations. These have included the National Union of Teachers passing a resolution in 2016 for it to be scrapped and the University and College Union calling for it to be boycotted. The National Union of Students is against it, too, and runs a campaign called Students Not Suspects, currently promoted by NUS president Zamzam Ibrahim.

Adding to the criticism has been a June 2019 Higher Education Policy Institute paper – Free Speech and Censorship on Campus – authored by Corey Stoughton, a director of Liberty. It begins by drawing attention to the pressure in 1966 from Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, to get a speech cancelled on the Berkeley campus of the University of California. The speech was to be given by Stokely Carmichael, a leader of the US civil rights movement.

Stoughton then moves 50 years forward to February 2017, when student protests erupted at the same university against a planned speech by right-wing commentator, Milo Yiannopolous. There were howls of outrage from right-wing circles, claiming to support free speech, including from Donald Trump.

The paper goes on to draw out the hypocrisy of the Tory government’s Prevent strategy: “There is a substantial irony in the government spuriously accusing today’s students of threatening free speech when, in fact, the true threat to free speech on campus is the government’s own policies… Through the so-called Prevent strategy, the government imposes obligations on universities and members of university communities that either directly interfere with speech or have the foreseeable and actual effect of chilling the exercise of free expression”.

The Prevent statutory guidance requires universities to check that external speakers are not likely to express ‘extremist’ views. Extremism was defined in 2011 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 beliefs”. Clearly this can be used – and has been – against a wide range of political views.

The British values and laws referred to are capitalist ones, many of which are opposed by socialists and the workers’ movement. For instance, if workers involved in a dispute with their employer decide they have to defy the undemocratic anti-trade union laws, they could be classed as extremists using the definition.

The Prevent guidance states that the strategy is targeting “not just violent extremism but also non-violent extremism, which can create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism and can popularise views which terrorists exploit”. So, incredibly, anyone suspected by public-sector staff of being a ‘non-violent extremist’, by law should be subjected to a risk assessment.

Protesters on all manner of subjects have been targeted: against fracking, wars in the Middle East, austerity, and many other issues taken up in the workers’ movement and by socialists. A recent case was retired doctor Lyn Jenkins being visited by police after his local NHS trust reported him to Prevent coordinators for taking part in non-violent Extinction Rebellion protests. (The Guardian, 1 September)

Although Prevent applies widely in the public sector, the government sees universities as particularly appropriate for spotting aspiring terrorists. Written in its guidance for higher education institutions is: “Commitment to freedom of speech and the rationality underpinning the advancement of knowledge means that they [higher education bodies] represent one of our most important arenas for challenging extremist views and ideologies”. In other words, students who express views that fit the government’s idea of extremism must be challenged and can be referred to a Prevent ‘deradicalisation programme’ or the police.

As well as being repressive, aspects of the guidance are nonsensical. It is already a criminal offence to encourage terrorism or to invite support for a proscribed terrorist organisation. Nonetheless, the guidelines for universities say they “should not provide a platform for these offences to be committed”. Yet how can a management body know that an offence will be committed? Moreover, even without suspicion of a possible offence, events can be cancelled if what is “likely to be expressed constitute extremist views that risk drawing people into terrorism or are shared by terrorist groups”.

An Office for Students evaluation of Prevent published in June 2019 said that 17 higher education institutions reported having rejected (ie banned) 53 events or external speakers in 2017-18. Also, 65 institutions placed conditions on 2,153 events or speakers that year. Conditions have included imposing a chairperson on a meeting, changing the format of an event or deciding who can attend it. Student societies have faced long waits for the bureaucratic process of approval or not to take place for the event they want to host.

All these repressive measures must be scrapped, along with the rest of the Prevent rules. Students should have the right to democratically discuss and decide themselves how their events are run and who will be invited. During the planning of events, socialists would argue for the maximum possible expression of opinions and debate at any meetings to be hosted, both from the floor and, at times, from relevant external speakers. The only exception needs to be regarding incipient fascist groups who should not be given the opportunity to organise towards their aim of dividing the working class and smashing its organisations.

Prevent ‘duty’ goes much further than interfering in events and meetings. It also draws staff into insidious security surveillance of each other and the students they teach. This counts against the development of a relationship of trust in which students can confide in lecturers, instead creating a climate of fear of being referred to the Prevent programme or the police if they speak their minds.

An online Prevent training video urges staff to look out for any changes in behaviour or patterns of speaking, such as “asking inappropriate questions” or being “fixated on one topic of conversation”. It is all about spotting signs of ‘radicalisation’ which, according to the criteria given, could be left-wing radicalisation as well as right-wing, or religious. It is cloaked in the pretence of aiming to safeguard vulnerable young people who are deemed to be at risk of being radicalised. So staff are told to look out for signs of isolation, loneliness, unhappiness, etc – while the Tory government has cut youth and mental health services to the bone, placed students under a huge debt burden, and given them few prospects of decent, well-paid jobs.

Particularly affected by Prevent are Muslim and ethnic minority students, who have been disproportionately profiled as possibly opposed to ‘British values’ and, therefore, outrageously labelled as potential terrorists. Availability of Home Office funding for Prevent in its early stages was based on the number of Muslims in a local authority. According to a government report, of the 6,093 individuals referred to Prevent in 2016-17, 61% of them were referred for “concerns related to Islamist extremism”. Only 16% of referrals were for “concerns related to right-wing extremism”.

The NUS did its own study on the impact of Prevent on Muslim students in 2017-18 and found that a third of its respondents felt negatively affected by it, with some avoiding political activity or debate in case they were reported for their views or actions. Some refuse to even participate in research studies like the NUS one, for fear of being scapegoated.

The pressure of the onslaught of criticisms against Prevent has led the government to announce there will be an ‘independent review’ of the strategy next year. The term ‘independent’ is, however, beyond a joke, because House of Lords member Alex Carlile, who has been appointed to run the review, has strongly supported Prevent in the past and was a member of the Home Office board that drove its implementation.

Churning out more and more ‘anti-terrorist’ laws will not stop the risk of terrorist incidents occurring. Rather, measures like Prevent serve the purpose for the government of being seen to be doing something. They also contribute towards whipping up division among ordinary people, placing Muslims at greater risk of being verbally or physically attacked, and cutting across common struggle that would be in the interests of the entire working class.

In addition, the government can, and does, hold the repressive legislation in reserve for use against workers fighting for improved pay, terms and conditions, or anyone actively opposing its policies or rule.  Last December, the ‘Stansted 15’ were convicted using anti-terrorist legislation after they chained themselves to an airplane to stop 60 people from being forcibly deported.

Overall, the Prevent strategy is a sign of the great weakness of the capitalist establishment, not of its strength. Indicating Prevent’s bankruptcy, the UK’s most senior counter-terrorism officer, Neil Basu, when trying to defend it at a recent conference in Israel, resorted to saying: “No one who has challenged Prevent to date has had a better idea”. (The Guardian, 9 September) In truth, the capitalist class and its representatives in government cannot prevent terrorism because it is their system and its decay that have laid the basis for it in the first place.

Imperialist interventions in the Middle East have taken the massive destruction and terror of western weaponry to the peoples of that region. Horrific group and individual terrorism has been one of the consequences, which Muslims in Iraq, Syria, Libya and other countries have been the main victims of. Those wars have also been part of the motivation for a number of terrorist attacks in the west. Others have been motivated by far-right ideology or appear to have been expressions of terrible desperation, illness or tragically misdirected anger.

The intrusive measures of Prevent only add to the alienation, anger, victimisation and discrimination felt by many young people in capitalist society today. Marxists have always condemned the dead end of individual terrorism. The victims of it suffer immensely and the perpetrators don’t achieve their aims.

The way towards ending it is to unite all sections of the working class to take a lead, as part of a democratically organised mass movement, in a struggle against oppression, poverty, war and terrorism. This means mobilising around a programme that links the fight against austerity today – and for decent homes and jobs for all – with the need for a completely different society. This can only be a socialist society, which would be able to satisfy the needs of all.

Judy Beishon